By Children’s Law Center
Sleigh bells ring, judge is listening—is not your typical holiday medley. But it provided the soundtrack last December for five-year-old Charlie Young while Alexis DeBernardis, his pro bono counsel, fought for him in his custody case. (Names have been changed to protect client anonymity.) Alexis is an associate at Crowell & Moring, but she also volunteers as a pro bono lawyer with Children’s Law Center (CLC).
“Since I was a first year attorney, pro bono work has been a personal priority,” she said. “And advocating for the best interests of children – who are usually underrepresented and sometimes overlooked – is something I am passionate about. Making these cases a part of my regular docket was never a question of if, but how.”
Alexis started by enrolling in a CLC training. Since then, she has handled ten cases, including special education, caregiver, and guardian ad litem cases.
And that’s how she wound up spending her holiday season with Charlie. Charlie’s father had worked tirelessly to make his son’s life a better one—and he really just wanted to know where his son would be for Christmas. Alexis knew how intimidating the court system could be for the family, especially in an emotional case like this one, and so she volunteered to handle Charlie’s case. The trial wrapped up right before Christmas, amidst tears and hugs from Charlie’s father. It’s a win Alexis won’t forget.
“Serving as a custody guardian ad litem is unique, and taking in the case from the eyes of a preschooler is such an important perspective. You realize how much bigger the stakes are for this child and how important the outcome is to his ‘everyday.’ It’s about consistency and a stable home. It’s about a child who is too young to offer his own voice.”
Alexis represents children in pro bono cases in addition to managing her challenging law-firm caseload, which includes mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures, and issues arising under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act. Fortunately, Crowell & Moring is committed to pro bono and community work, empowering Alexis and her colleagues to work on cases like Charlie’s. She’s grateful to the firm for the opportunity and hopes to continue serving as a voice for children and making connections in the community one case at a time.
Pro bono opportunities also serve as great professional development tools, especially for junior lawyers. Alexis mentions the career benefits, including appearing and arguing in court, managing her own cases, and working with partners outside her own practice group.
But there is a more fundamental reason to do pro bono work: “If you have something to give, you should.” Alexis adds, “In many pro bono cases, you’re working with children and families who are dealing with everyday emergencies; assisting them in navigating our complex judicial system is one small contribution I can make toward social justice.”
Children’s Law Center fights so every DC child can grow up with a loving family, good health, and a quality education. Learn more about volunteering.