By Laura Higbee
We had a great time working with the Association of Corporate Counsel’s National Capital Region to host the In-House Pro Bono Program and Fair: Making Pro Bono Work in a Virtual World. Mary Batch of StockX got us started. Over the course of an hour, our panelists told us about how their respective organizations adapted their pro bono offerings in response to the pandemic and shared advice for audience members looking to get involved in pro bono work.
Kirsten Keating, the panel’s moderator and Associate General Counsel at Freddie Mac, said all of her organization’s pro bono work was in-person before the pandemic. Opportunities ran the gamut from a one-time interaction of a couple of hours to full representation. The secret to Freddie Mac’s virtual success? Legal Services of Northern Virginia, with whom Freddie Mac partners for pro bono matters. Kirsten applauded LSNV attorneys for making themselves available to share practice area expertise and for ensuring client information could be exchanged securely.
Daryl Maxwell of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center said the most ‘virtual’ his organization had been before Covid was through phone calls. The Small Business Clinic will return to the in-person model in April, but that doesn’t mean a return solely to in-person events. In fact, Darryl commented that young lawyers were especially eager to try their hands at ‘live’ client interactions.
Erin Mee’s National Veterans Legal Services Program has been doing virtual work before it became commonplace. That’s because veteran clients and partner organization volunteers have always been located nationwide. These days both clients and volunteers are much more comfortable with technology, which Erin appreciates. And more attorneys can participate in the now-virtual screening process for discharge upgrades, which helps NVLSP operate more efficiently.
Kathi Westcott of Pew Charitable Trusts is a pro bono champion. She has volunteered with Whitman-Walker Health for both in-person and virtual name change clinics, and she has provided Medicare Part D plan advice by phone after doing online research. Kathi’s most recent Whitman-Walker victory involved representing a client whose insurance company had denied coverage of gender affirmation surgery. Kathi prepared an appeal packet, with Whitman-Walker’s guidance, and submitted it to the insurance company and the DC Office of the Healthcare Ombudsman. The insurance company affirmed its denial, but the DC government agreed with Kathi. The client received coverage for gender affirmation surgery. As an added bonus, the client’s employer changed healthcare plans to prevent future employees from encountering the same roadblock.
What about would-be volunteers feeling overwhelmed? Here are some tips to get you started:
- You don’t have to learn a new practice area if that isn’t your preference. For example, Darryl talked about working with attorneys who already practice in the transactional space. They bring their ‘day job’ expertise and insights with them to the Small Business Clinics.
- If you can participate in pro bono through a more formal, structured program, take advantage. All panelists sang the praises of these programs because they more readily provide other volunteers who can tag in if you get too busy and institutional knowledge that can save you time. Note: for those physically located in the DMV area, ACC-NCR’s Pro Bono Committee would be elated to connect you with opportunities.
- Meet your clients where they are. Erin has encountered veteran clients who live in rural areas with less reliable internet access. A phone call or in-person meeting at a Veterans’ Center would be a better fit. Another perk of in-person/virtual flexibility: clients can more easily take breaks and regroup either in a few minutes or on a different day. This is especially important for Erin, whose clients sometimes develop mental health struggles because of their military service.
- Be brave, but know you don’t have to do pro bono alone. Again, all panelists emphasized this point. Kathi especially; she admitted to having some trepidation before taking an insurance case. But achieving that win for her client more than made up for those initial qualms. She credits Whitman-Walker attorneys for helping her navigate the unfamiliar area of insurance law. Pro bono organizations of all types and sizes are ready to help you take that first step.
To access a recording of the program, please click here. If you would like more information or would like to follow up with any of the legal service providers that participated in the Fair, you can find the website and contact details here.
Laura Higbee is a member of the Washington Council of Lawyers Communication Committee.