By Laura Higbee
Lawyers who work for any government have a couple of extra considerations to make before doing pro bono work. But as our Government Pro Bono Roundtable moderator and panelists showed, doing pro bono as a government attorney is still accessible and rewarding. Read on to learn (or get a refresher on) some tips from the pros:
Laura Klein, the DOJ’s Pro Bono Program Manager, reminded attendees of the two crucial nuances of pro bono work as a government lawyer. First, conflicts of interest rules prohibit any government lawyer from working on a case in which the government has a direct or substantial interest. For example, federal attorneys cannot work on immigration or veterans’ benefits cases. Good news: pro bono coordinators/managers like Laura screen potential pro bono cases for conflicts before sharing opportunities with attorneys. Subscribing to agency/department pro bono emails is the best way to find conflict-free work. These screened opportunities also come with malpractice insurance.
Second, all pro bono work must be done in an individual capacity, wholly separate from official job duties. This means government attorneys need to work on pro bono matters on their own time. More good news: over 20 federal agencies and the DC Attorney General’s Office already have guidelines for taking leave to work on pro bono matters. This leave can cover court appearances or other obligations during work hours. If your entity does not yet have a pro bono leave policy, ask your coordinator/manager how best to proceed.
What kinds of pro bono work can a government attorney do? The possibilities are nearly endless. Transactional clinics, landlord/tenant cases (FAA labor/employment attorney Christopher Jennison’s first pro bono case was a landlord/tenant matter), preparation of wills, employment law. Federal government attorneys who are not licensed in DC can still take DC pro bono cases. All they need is a DC-licensed attorney to sponsor them. And, as of August 2022, DC government attorneys are allowed to represent clients in court as long as they do so not for compensation and the District is not a party and has no interest in the case.
Every panelist had pro bono stories to share, but one that stood out was from Tracy Suhr, who works at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in DC. Her client was seeking a permanent housing voucher so he could live with his children. His last name on his birth certificate did not match the last name he had used most of his life and was on other key documents. Because of the discrepancy, the client had been denied a housing voucher. He needed to change his last name officially to his ‘lived as’ last name so his birth certificate matched. Tracy attended a virtual name change hearing on his behalf. She saw many other applicants be rescheduled because they, representing themselves, had skipped a step or missed some a vital detail. Tracy was able to ‘translate’ for both the judge and the client. His name change was granted the same day.
Digesting paperwork and communicating effectively at a hearing both come naturally to an award-winning lawyer like Tracy (she is our 2022 Government Pro Bono Award winner). But for her client, Tracy’s presence was the difference between getting the result he needed the same day and having to wait even longer. Her presence and her skills helped the client get everything he needed.
Our key takeaways from the panel:
1. Pro bono work is rewarding and even fun
2. Just showing up can make all the difference for your client
3. When in doubt, talk to your pro bono coordinator/manager
Laura Higbee is a member of the Washington Council of Lawyers Communication Committee.