Are Pro Bono Attorneys More Common In Big Cities like DC or NYC?

The short answer is yes. Residents of rural areas of the United States have always had trouble finding pro bono legal services. The reason is simple and easy enough to understand. Lawyers who offer pro bono services are usually doing so for a combination of reasons. Sure, they want to help out those in need…but they also want everyone else to find out about how they helped someone in need. There’s an unspoken quid pro quo involved in this “free” transaction.

And it never hurts to spread the word in big cities either.

DC personal injury attorneys represent victims of accidents that were someone else’s fault. These might occur due to another person’s negligence, they might occur because someone purposely hurt another person, or they might occur simply because an accident occurred because of a mistake. Pro bono attorneys usually help those who need it the most — including the financially exigent. 

Does that mean living in a rural area completely bars you from receiving pro bono help? No, not at all. What it does mean is that you might have to travel farther to benefit from it. And even then, the amount of legal aid you receive might depend on your pro bono lawyer’s ability or desire to travel — if indeed you require them to travel.

For example, in Washington DC there are several potential paths to pro bono legal help. One is the American Association of Retired Persons Legal Counsel For The Elderly Volunteer Lawyers Project. The other is the DC Bar Pro Bono Program. Both are designed to connect pro bono lawyers to clients who need legal help but likely cannot pay for it.

The latter group provides services for lawyers who would like to donate some of their time for pro bono work as well. For example, it hosts training sessions where counselors will learn how to approach and win these cases for their new clients. The group also helps provide pro bono legal help to nonprofits and small businesses — especially those run by immigrants, people of color, other minorities, and women.

Why are these groups only available inside the city? Primarily because that’s where the resources are located. Lawyers have an easier time meeting and networking with other lawyers when they live in a compact area where people are always in need of help. In smaller towns and rural areas, there is more competition — and it makes it harder to get a leg in the game.

However, we do feel the need to say that while there is a place for pro bono lawyers in rural communities, those with the time and money to spare are usually already set up for success. Those whose offices exist in rural areas probably already knew that their client base would be small, which means the extra services they can offer would always be limited. But hey — it never hurts to ask if a lawyer you like will offer you their services pro bono no matter where you live.


Annual Pro Bono Award Winners Announced By Gibson Dunn

Each year, the Pro Bono Committee at Gibson Dunn gives out Frank Wheat Memorial Awards to those lawyers who have provided exceptional pro bono service to those in need. The awards are handed out on the basis of leadership, initiative, and results. More than that, Gibson Dunn provides them as a way to motivate and inspire other lawyers to do the say — as a sort of pay it forward maneuver.

The Multi-Office of COVID-19 Response to Small Business Needs won an award due to their work to help those who found themselves in dire financial straits because of lost income. Start Small Think Big focused its team efforts to small businesses that are minority owned or female owned. The group launched a new program to increase response time to facilitate and streamline legal consultations to determine if representation was required.

New York Moves Forward collaborated with the state of New York and the governor’s office to create and manage an online portal to provide information to small businesses about the CARES Act and how it might be used to provide federal aid to those businesses. The group fielded requests from more than 70 nonprofit organizations.

La Cocina is a San Francisco nonprofit built to provide legal advice to underrepresented clients of color, including women and immigrants. They collaborated with Gibson Dunn to help businesses owned by these individuals determine flexibility with leases during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The La Cocina Board of Directors stated that Dunn’s “support has allowed La Cocina staff and volunteers to spend even more time on critical entrepreneur and community support including The Emergency Relief Fund, an ongoing fundraising effort that has already distributed much-needed support to our La Cocina applicants as well as growing membership.”

The awards were given to a group of nearly 200 lawyers whose pro bono work amounted to around 4,300 hours of time.


Was A North Texas Family Illegally Evicted After The Federal Eviction Moratorium Extension?

The CDC recently extended a federal moratorium on eviction through the end of March to help families that are facing eviction because of financial hardships due to coronavirus and COVID-19. But that didn’t help Jonnay Mckinley, whose pro bono eviction attorney Mark Melton argues that the landlord and sheriff did not have the legal authority to proceed with the eviction. So why did it happen?

And at the end of 2020, Mckinley received the first notice to vacate. In response, she signed a declaration under the CDC’s policy and brought it to her leasing office. Nearly a month later, she was told that a constable would be on his wife the next day to remove the family forcibly if need be. She didn’t understand.

Mckinley said, “I felt so let down, like, what do I do? My kids, their faces. They’re like, Mom, I’m sorry. They feel sorry for me. ‘You tried so hard and it still wasn’t good enough.’”

According to Melton, Dallas County constables are not legally allowed to proceed with an eviction once they are informed that a tenant has submitted a CDC declaration. In that case, the constable can only return to court to alert the judge what transpired. The landlord would be forced to request a hearing if he still wanted to proceed.

We asked the Toronjo & Prosser law firm about their current bankruptcy cases. Like most firms around the country, they’re dealing with an increased caseload. According to attorneys at T&P, business owners have financial woes of their own — landlords among them — and haven’t been quick to show leniency to everyone else. But what goes around comes around, and people who disobey laws during the COVID-19 crisis will likely face harsh punishment if ever brought before a judge.

Mckinley’s experiences make that more than clear.

Melton said, “This isn’t even a he said, she said scenario. We have hard proof that this was submitted to all of the relevant parties and none of them did anything about it.”

But of course the constable says that Mckinley never mentioned it. 

Texas Supreme Court ruled on a 32nd emergency order to provide oversight about when and where a tenant needs to sign the moratorium declaration and send it. The 32nd would force the judge ruling over the case to halt the eviction barring a declaration hearing. None of that happened.

Eventually, late fees were waived by the apartment complex and her landlord said she could move back. According to the apartment’s management, a deal was reached. No other details were provided. 

Melton said, “Somebody slipped through the cracks and it has life-altering consequences to this young family. It never should have happened.”

Now, she has the keys to her old apartment back. She says she still feels like a failure, though. Mckinley explained, “My main thing is my babies. It’s not about me. It’s about them.”


Revisiting The Highest Profile Pro Bono Immigration Case Of 2020

President Joe Biden has basically stripped away nearly all of the misdeeds of the Trump presidency with a litany of executive orders — because many of those misdeeds were carried out by executive order themselves — but the stain won’t really wipe away so easily. Biden plans to allow many more immigrants and asylum seekers into the country over the next year or so, but fallout from Trump’s policies continues to haunt the new administration. 

Last year, Sidley Austin provided pro bono services during a joint lawsuit with Harvard Law School Clinic against the Department of Homeland Security because of illegal rules under enforcement by the Trump administration.

One such rule denied asylum seekers who were ever convicted of a felony or misdemeanor (with some exceptions). The rule went even further by barring entry to anyone who had ever helped one of these people.

The complaint filed by Austin and Harvard Law said, “These changes will dramatically curtail the availability of asylum to people fleeing persecution, in contravention of the INA’s plain language and the United States’ international commitments. The rule will thus have a devastating impact on asylum-seekers and immigration legal services providers — including plaintiffs and the communities they serve.”

The National Immigration Project, National Lawyers Guild D.C., and Immigrant Defense Project N.Y. helped file the complaint. They eventually won.

The argument was based on the simple fact that the restrictions would complicate the lawyers’ abilities to shift resources to help their asylum-seeking clients — or even meet with them at all. The rule would force the pro bono team to spend more time on each individual client’s case (because the government had just made them far more complicated), which would reduce the number of people they could assist and also cut off grant money, which was based on the number of people assisted. 

Trump’s rule would not only have applied to convicted criminals — but also to convicted criminals whose records were vacated or expunged.


Bank Of America Legal Offering Pro Bono Help To Improve Public Image

Big banks have big reputations. They’re too big to fail. Miss a payment and they will foreclose on your house. They will haunt you into the afterlife. You know, stuff like that. Now, it seems like Bank of America has realized that the public image might not be so great. The BoA legal department provides pro bono aid to lawyers and families, most recently in Charlotte, North Carolina. But Bank of America might find its image is more difficult to shed than that. 

Bank of America debt settlement lawyers will be the first to tell you that the bank operates a little differently than most others — especially when it comes to haunting those who default on their debt payments. You see, most banks (and creditors in general) will actually sell off the debt to a third-party when the debtor fails to pay. But not Bank of America. They have their own legal department come after you. Word on the street is that they can actually be pretty relentless. Which is why the bank’s need for an image reversal is no big surprise to anyone.

But admittedly, they’re still accomplishing some good work.

Assistant General Counsel Brett Shockley decided to take Bank of America up on its pro bono offer, and worked with the bank on the housing team in order to represent tenants who have trouble with their landlords. Can’t get the guy to fix the pipes? A small pro bono claim is no big deal to Bank of America’s huge legal department, because they can swallow the cost without even noticing.

Brett said, “Working with Legal Aid has been an eye-opening experience. I have a much greater appreciation of the struggles that low-income people face on a day-to-day basis.”

And it’s that empathy some lawyers sorely need.

Global General Counsel David Leitch said, “We are committed to doing our part to assist all members of our community, but especially those who are most vulnerable and have the greatest need. Our team gives their time and expertise to assist on a wide-range of legal issues, including anti-discrimination in housing, estate planning, helping veterans access their benefits, tax preparation, and child custody issues.”

Dawn Sewell works as a process design consultant for Bank of America’s legal department. He served as a team leader on Charlotte’s pro bono projects, and everyone he interacts with on a daily basis knows that he provides this service on behalf of the bank. 

Dawn said, “The expectation of pro bono service is set at our department’s highest levels of management. We should be very proud of those who answer the call to give up their time and energy. We have the power to improve the lives of our least-represented neighbors in real and practical ways.”

Although providing free legal aid to those who live in poverty will always be a worthy endeavor, it’s one that’s unlikely to be noticed by the public eye — and so BoA might have to work harder yet to change that image in any meaningful way.


Technology Is Helping Us Provide More Pro Bono Services

The pandemic means that providing the same goods and services to customers and clients is more difficult. But technology has provided ways to make things easier in some cases. For example, many professionals are providing information services online. Teachers conduct class via Zoom video conferencing. Even lawyers have found ways to conduct their business remotely — some are even setting up firms devoted to remote services!

But the need is even greater for remote pro bono services due to the coronavirus pandemic. In part, this is because those who have the most need can’t properly navigate public assistance programs — especially those that are brand new. Many people don’t even know which programs they qualify for. Who qualifies for unemployment benefits for the upcoming stimulus package? Who qualifies for the new $600 check? Whose landlords can place an eviction notice during this crisis?

These questions are sometimes difficult to answer alone, which is why the need for free legal assistance is so critical, now and over the next few months as the vaccine is rolled out.

Immigrants have been especially hurt because government assistance programs have tried to bypass them entirely — especially those who are undocumented. DACA protections have been reimplemented, but support networks for the Dreamers still need to be maintained. That means legal assistance must be made available. 

These protections are mostly provided remotely now. For example, Chicago’s King County court rolled out a new system so domestic violence survivors can electronically register for a protection order (against the alleged abuser) rather than appear in court in person, which was the way it was done before the first cases of COVID arose in the United States.

King County Bar Association has also led the Housing Justice Project (HJP) to help tenants avoid unfair eviction, providing counseling when needed. Other resources have been made widely available and can be found with a simple search online.


What Does The American Bar Association Say About COVID-19 And Pro Bono?

This year has been extremely stressful for lawyers, most of whom are receiving more cases than usual amidst a dangerous pandemic that has also changed how they must do business. Most casework can be completed at home or in an office with appropriate social distancing procedures in place. But clients have mostly been barred from these environments. Meetings take place over the phone or on Zoom clients instead. It hasn’t been easy.

And there are other issues, too.

Most Americans couldn’t afford a $400 emergency expenditure. Well, almost all of those people have had to try to afford a $400 emergency expenditure — because many Americans have lost their jobs. The economy is slowly crawling back, but the GDP growth has collapsed for the first time in many years.

Pro Bono New Jersey has expanded its resources to help many clients in northern states, but the workload is unsustainable in the long-term. Those in southern or western states can try Pro Bono Net, but should expect many of the same concerns. The ABA also provides detailed information on how to find a pro bono lawyer.

What does the American Bar Association have to say? They want you to know that there are still lawyers out there who can help you. Also, taking a look at the ABA website can help you find some resources you didn’t necessarily know were already free. For example, the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) has made its library of online courses available to anyone who signs up — and every single one of those course is completely free. You can create a guest account without signing up for an ABI membership.

Those who require legal services right now can reach out to the ABA Young Lawyers Division, which established a national hotline in order to provide easy information resources.

As always, many pro bono opportunities are still available: ABA Free Legal Answers provides virtual legal advice for those who need it the most. You can simply post a legal question. If it has not already been asked, a qualified lawyer will answer it promptly. The Massachusetts COVID-19 Pro Bono Portal helps residents find pro bono projects that could apply in a given situation. Many of these projects are currently remote in nature, making it easier for those who cannot travel.

The National Disaster Relief Pro Bono Portal connects victims of natural and other disasters to lawyers who are well versed in finding alternative avenues of compensation. COVID-19 is included under the umbrella of disaster relief, so it’s worth a try. The National Disaster Legal Aid Advocacy Center provides similar help. Go there if you cannot find what you are looking for from the previous Pro Bono Portal. 

The ABA also links to resources offered by the CDC. This is a great place to look if you’re having trouble coping in strictly non-legal ways, i.e. depression or anxiety about the future.


Pro Bono Services Offer Protection From Voter Suppression

Part of the GOP’s platform is blatant voter suppression — sometimes through legal gerrymandering and sometimes through illegal intimidation tactics. Either of these strategies should be fought against because they reduce the ability of our elected officials to represent the greatest number of people. Tens of millions of people in this country are represented by state officials who lost the popular vote. That shouldn’t happen!

Onika Williams is a 37-year-old lawyer who volunteers with Election Protection, which is a platform created to protect our democratic interests — with bipartisan support. Williams helps field calls to the hotline the platform helped create. She said, “Voters are engaged and they want to make sure their votes count.”

Almost 24,000 lawyers have offered their services pro bono to ensure our rights are protected at the polls.

Have a question about registration? Where to vote early? How you can track your ballot after sending it by mail? Worried about heading to the polls because of coronavirus? You’re not alone.

President Kristen Clarke of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said, “The volume of litigation and intensity of the phone calls makes clear that the 2020 election is a season like none other in recent times.”

Many of the groups that make up this platform have helped create the foundation or strengthening of lawsuits to challenge the many changes being made by the Trump administration during this election season — and also because of simple mistakes. For example, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law successfully sued the state of Virginia when the voter registration system was disabled due to a cut fiber optic cable.

Over 100,000 calls were phoned in over only a few months — or nearly 7,000 each day. This is an enormous amount of interest compared to the previous election, which saw only 21,000 calls in the entire year before Election 2016.

Pro Bono Counsel and Director Harlene Katzman at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP said, “The onset of COVID-19 has posed really unprecedented challenges to voters all across the country.”


Is COVID-19 Amplifying Employment Litigation?

The quick answer is “yes” — there are far more employment lawsuits today than compared to a year ago. Since March, the number of new lawsuits has steadily climbed. Industry analysts expect this trend to continue for some time, especially if the U.S. fails to offer a meaningful vaccination or implement universal preventative measures. Pro bono lawyers are having a difficult time keeping up with the needs of low-income communities around the country, but they’re doing their best.

Coronavirus has everyone somewhat anxious about the future. Some have lost their jobs already. Some are still employed, but at increased risk because they were deemed “essential.” And some are at increased risk of infection due to other factors like age or underlying conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Some have family members who fought and succumbed to the disease coronavirus causes, COVID-19.

The number of lawsuits is skyrocketing for at least three reasons. One, most essential workers never received any hazard pay, even though they’re the ones taking the biggest risk. They’re also effectively making less money than some people who lost their jobs in March and April but were able to get on unemployment. Two, many employers have been accused of failing to follow CDC guidelines on how to reduce the opportunity for coronavirus to propagate in a workplace. Three, employees have new rights because of new laws passed. Not all employers have had an easy time implementing the needed changes in the workplace. Workers aren’t happy.

There are a number of reasons a worker might make that fateful call to an employment lawyer.

One is FMLA interference. FMLA is time off thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act. Employers who do not approve FMLA leave when an employee has shown symptoms of coronavirus and/or been asked by his or her doctor to quarantine are subject to extreme litigation. One woman in Kentucky claimed that she was fired after requesting the leave in Hockersmith v. Elmcroft.

One of the most classic reasons for employment litigation is becoming more popular in the age of coronavirus: retaliation. When one plaintiff was denied medical leave (which would have been covered by workers’ comp) in Castaneda v. Niagara Bottling LLC, he complained about the lackluster coronavirus safety measures and was subsequently terminated. 

Another possible reason to sue is breach of contract. In Kalsey v. Dialsource, Inc., one contracted worker was fired when the contractor’s financial situation changed due to COVID-19. The employer offered a severance package, but the contracted employee turned it down as breach of contract. The employer still fired the contracted employee — but this time the reason was “for cause.” Allegedly, there was none. 

Lastly, discrimination cases are also on the rise. Perhaps this is because employers feel they can get away with more in the Trump era, or perhaps they think everyone is too concerned with coronavirus to notice. That’s not the case, and new lawsuits are pouring in everyday.


Pro Bono Legal Experts Hail Recent Ruling About Detention Centers A Major Victory

Many pro bono lawyers have spent countless hours fighting against the unimaginable cruelties continuing to take place along our southern border. Those lawyers are celebrating today after Federal Judge Dolly M. Gee for the U.S. District Court in the Central District of Columbia ruled that migrant children — who have often been separated from their parents indefinitely — must be released immediately due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus in those detention centers.

On June 8, 2020, ICE had 124 migrant children detained. They now have until July 17 to set them free. Of the 8,858 detainees at these centers, at least 751 are confirmed to have caught coronavirus.

Descriptions of the conditions inside these detention centers have been horrific. A letter penned by lawyers and organizations providing free legal aid said, “The Administration must stop using this public health crisis as a means for implementing unlawful and inhumane immigration policies. In these extraordinary times, human suffering need not be compounded by locking up families or instilling fear in the hearts of migrant parents.”

The letter was addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf alongside Matt Albence, the acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has alerted authorities that the legal order is current under review.

Gee wrote, “Although progress has been made, the Court is not surprised that [COVID-19] has arrived at both the [Family Residential Centers] and [Office of Refugee Resettlement] facilities, as health professionals have warned all along.”

One lawyer who was representing a class action lawsuit related to the detention of these families, Holly Cooper, said, “In order to do it in a humane way, they have to release the child with a parent…ICE makes a real horrible guardian of children … and so far ICE has opted to keep children detained … during a global pandemic.”

Not anymore!