Do Texas Attorneys Do Pro Bono Work?

Pro bono services exist because people cannot always afford the help they need. It’s not fair that the poor are so disproportionately affected by our broken legal system. According to the Texas Access to Justice Commission, nearly 80 percent of those who qualify for programs relating to civil legal services do not get help. Public defenders don’t always do the job.

Did you know that about 2.5 million hours of pro bono time are logged in Texas every year? There are benefits for lawyers who give up their time, but most who do so admit that they feel good about it. That leaves the question: how does someone find a pro bono attorney?

The best way to find out if a lawyer volunteers to work pro bono is to ask. A Houston criminal defense lawyer who asked to remain anonymous said, “We always like to help out when someone can’t afford our services, but at the same time — we like to be paid. We can’t volunteer all our time. We’d never pay off our education, were that the case. Sad, but true. But I like when people show the initiative to pitch their own case and why I should take it pro bono before I make that pitch better for the judge or jury.”

There are even pro bono services available to refugees seeking asylum at the southern border with Mexico. This is necessary because President Trump has attempted to amend regulations to ban most of the refugees from coming into the country. 

A number of organizations devoted to providing legal aid and humanitarian services at the border include: the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR), the Border Network for Human Rights, the Hope Border Institute, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), Al Otro Lado, and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.

The services aren’t only available for the sake of the refugees — they’re also available for the sake of people who are ignorant of the historical context of the situation at the border. Most of these organizations have made it a priority to shed light on what is really happening in places like El Paso so that the Trump administration cannot continue to sweep it under the rug. The sharing of information is crucial to this fight.

Additional information about pro bono services available to Texas citizens can be found by contacting the State Bar of Texas at 1-800-204-2222.


Are There Enough Pro Bono Attorneys To Fill The Gap In Wealth Inequality?

We most often hear about it described as wealth inequality or the 1 percent versus the 99 percent — the vast gap between rich and poor. But in the legal world, we sometimes call it the justice gap. A similarly titled report found that nearly 86 percent of American citizens’ problems go unaddressed even though a firm legal basis can help resolve them. Why is this the case? Because those American citizens are poor. 

The low-income sector is diverse in its demographics: it includes vets, the disabled, senior citizens, single mothers and fathers, etc. 

They all have different legal worries they would like to see resolved. Some are experiencing trouble finding adequate housing for their families. Others are the victims of domestic violence. Many simply require financial help from their ex-spouses or even the government. They require child support, disability benefits, or veterans’ benefits to live in relative comfort.

Pro bono attorneys work to address this “Justice Gap.” Legal organizations fight to ensure that there are incentives available for lawyers who work pro bono, but there still aren’t enough — and this problem will likely continue in the foreseeable future due to the still-growing inequality gap. 

One organization is called the Pro Bono Network (or PBN). The PBN has been up and running since 2011, and the number of lawyers at its disposal is still growing.

Another big obstacle in the way of legal resolution for low-income Americans are those lawyers who want to be a part of the solution, but themselves lack the resources to be of any real help. These attorneys are usually on their own, practicing law in small towns without the backing of a big firm. They have options to provide services online of course, but this is hardly the ideal way to go about it. 

For those lawyers who are interested in making a difference with PBN and live in the Cook or DuPage counties of Illinois, you can check in with Executive Director Linda Rio to find out when the next training or information seminar is scheduled to take place.

Haven’t made up your mind? Remember this: it isn’t just about whether or not someone has the money to hire a good lawyer. How the law falls on someone of low means is often decided by whether that person has a lawyer at all. Those who go without will almost always find themselves under the gavel, and often without any real reason — many are innocent of the crimes for which they have been charged, but they are convicted and sentenced all the same.

You can help!


What Kind Of Pro Bono Programs Are In Play At The Southern Border?

The immigration crisis at our southern border continues while the Trump Administration attempts to make changes to immigration law in order to classify how migrants got here illegal — even though by law they had no other way of going through the process. That’s why so many big law firms are opening their arms to those who need it the most, especially amidst crackdowns on immigrants who are already living here.

In fact, out of 2000 targeted immigrants in recent ICE raids, only 50 were caught. The immigration enforcement agency blamed the lack of “success” on social networking and media campaigns aimed at teaching people their basic rights, i.e. they can’t come into your home without a signed warrant. Basically, it’s working — so keep up the good work.

The ABA Commission on Immigration made a pro bono trip to the southern border this past April to offer advice and other kinds of expertise. They provided food to a migrant shelter and even basic medical services where none were to be found otherwise. These trips will continue to occur at least once a month while the crisis is in play.

Part of the process is simple coaching for those preparing for immigration or asylum interviews. 

A few volunteers even made the trip over the border to Mexico in order to meet others who had come seeking asylum in the United States. One member of the ABA, Mary Ryan, said “Obviously, the ABA has been aware of the needs. I mean, one of the major things we try to do is get people legal information…To Understand and see firsthand how desperate people are to know what they can do.”

Ryan works pro bono because she knows it means everything to the people she helps — especially when they feel they have no way out of terrible circumstances, like many of the migrants at the border.

She began her immigration routine in 2014, but she knew she needed to start learning Spanish to be as effective as possible. Today she knows the most important part of immigration or asylum as a process is the availability of legal representation — because those who get pushed through without it usually get pushed through in the wrong direction.

It’s also important to know that the government keeps records of conversations with those who have sought or achieved asylum. This is useful to both sides for obvious reasons.


The 2020 Tokyo Olympics And Paralympics To Acquire Pro Bono Support

We hear about it every four years: someone has been caught for doping ahead of the Olympic games. Someone is suspected of doping ahead of the games. The most anticipated sporting event in the world is almost always surrounded by an air of paranoia or sensationalist news headlines with little care for the truth. This is why many law firms offer their services free of charge: to make sure innocent athletes don’t get caught in the crossfire. The 2020 games will be no different.

A good number of these disputes lead to arbitration or mediation in order to keep local courts from being overwhelmed during the games. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) almost always stations itself in the host city in order to organize and classify potential cases into either the Ad Hoc Division or the Anti-Doping Division.

Many lawyers and law firms working pro bono provide services to Olympic athletes in conjunction with CAS. These services range from mere consultation to full representation in either arbitration or court, should the case proceed that far. The purpose of pro bono lawyers isn’t just about protecting athletes, it’s also about making operations run more smoothly in the host city. Athletes aren’t always familiar with another country’s laws, and so disputes are guaranteed to rise.

In the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic games, pro bono lawyers were available through 17 barristers’ chambers. 18 advocates were standing by to organize and administer needed services. A management committee kept things mostly in order.

In the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic games, another pro bono group was organized by the Rio de Janeiro Bar Association. While the 2012 games provided consultation services, the 2016 games did not.

In preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games, the Japan Sports Arbitration Agency (JSAA) is setting the groundwork for similar pro bono legal services by researching how the 2012 and 2016 services were carried out. The JSAA is no stranger to using arbitration to resolve disputes, having done so since 2003. However there are a number of reasons why the JSAA may not be able to conduct pro bono legal services without outside help, not the least of which is the lack of CAS familiarity.

The Japanese are exceptional learners, however, and their ability to get up to speed when provided a new challenge is unrivaled. Right now, lawyers for the free legal services are currently under review and will be selected shortly ahead of the games. Once these selections have been made, the pro bono lawyers will spend time training so they know what to expect!


Michael Avenatti: From Hero To Zero

Michael Avenatti is no stranger to making headlines. He was the famous lawyer who represented Stormi Daniels in her case against President Trump. He was even rumored to be considering a run at the 2020 presidency. But now the headlines tell a different story. Avenatti is now facing up to 335 years in jail after being indicted by a Southern California grand jury with 36 different charges alleging he embezzled millions of dollars from his clients, failed to pay taxes and perjured himself in bankruptcy cases, along with other charges.

This happened after he was freed on $300,000 bond from being arrested in New York for his alleged role in trying to extort Nike for $25 million. If convicted he could serve an additional 47 years.

The indictment which was over 60 pages alleges that Avenatti was embezzling from 5 clients, one of which was a paraplegic man. He would shuffle the money between the accounts and dole out small portions of what was owed to give them the false sense of security that they were being paid. Because he was illegally taking funds from his clients, the charge of not paying the correct amount in taxes has been added. According to the indictment, the IRS was never paid $3.2 million in payroll taxes from Tully’s Coffee, an independent coffee chain owned by Avenatti.

Throughout it all, Avenatti has maintained his innocence. He tweeted the following:

I intend to fully fight all charges and plead NOT GUILTY. I look forward to the entire truth being known as opposed to a one-sided version meant to sideline me. For 20 years, I have represented Davids vs. Goliaths and relied on due process and our system of justice. Along the way, I have made many powerful enemies. I am entitled to a FULL presumption of innocence and am confident that justice will be done once ALL of the facts are known.


What Are America’s Top Pro Bono Organizations?

If you’re in legal trouble and don’t have any way to pay for it, the stress can be unbearable. Luckily most law firms do a certain amount of pro bono hours each year. Part of the reason is based on need, and part is based on what the American BAR Association recommends. Clients never have to feel like they aren’t getting the best service just because they can’t afford it. Pro Bono work is done by specialists who are closely supervised to ensure that the best service is rendered.

These are a few of the top U.S. Pro Bono organizations.

 

  1. Her Justice is an organization devoted to helping women in poverty or domestic abuse throughout New York City. In addition, pro bono attorneys can provide services to clients who need immigration or divorce advice, and also get orders of protection for clients who are still in danger.
  2. My Sister’s Place helps victims of domestic violence, including children, find cheap or free shelter in addition to providing legal aid.

  3. Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts represents low-income artists and non-profit arts organizations.
  4.  One of the top ranking pro bono law firms is Jenner & Block. They serve both companies and individuals with financial, employment, and business litigation. The law firm is enormous and provides services internationally as well. 
  5. Covington & Burling is another international law firm with their foot in the pro bono door. They advise clients of transactional litigation, regulatory concerns, and public policy.
  6. Human Rights First works with refugees, and helps victims of crimes against humanity find justice. They work on discrimination cases out of D.C., NYC, and Houston. They also offer internships for up and coming law students.

  7. The Innocence Project works to use the most contemporary DNA testing practices available to help exonerate current inmates who they feel weren’t fairly tried and convicted. They have cleared at least 300 people of the crimes they were supposed to have committed. 18 of these victims were currently sitting on death row.

  8. Kids in Need of Defense (or KIND) helps represent the underrepresented. It provides aid to children who have been classified as refugees or immigrants and who don’t have a parent or guardian to watch out for them.

  9. Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (or TLDEF) helps advocate for transgender civil rights to prevent employment discrimination and promote access to health care. They also provide services to help move the name changing process swiftly along.


Pro Bono Legal Action Meets The Donald Trump Administration

It seems like wherever you look, Donald Trump is hard at work trying to make someone’s life just a little bit more difficult than it has to be. First, he wanted a travel ban placed on residents of certain “Muslim” countries he decided are associated with terrorism (barring the ones he does business with, of course). Then he wanted to shut out those in Mexico who would seek asylum in the United States.

The good thing is this: wherever you look, there are lawyers and civil rights advocates who shut down Trump’s obviously illegal activities before he can do any real damage.

The best thing about it? A lot of those lawyers are working pro bono. Many of them–thousands, in fact–work for some of the largest law firms in the country. Why? Well, part of the reason that so many lawyers are working against Trump in the immigration department is logistical: it’s easier and it’s safer. Most of their other clients are working in other fields and helping would-be immigrants won’t conflict with other client interests. They can do their thing without having to worry as much.

Another part of the reason is more obvious: Trump is a turd.

Recently, a judge struck down Trump’s plan to block those seeking asylum from entering the country before individual claims were approved. Trump wants it his way (i.e. for all the thousands of potential new immigrants to be held indefinitely in Mexico), but luckily the law on the matter is pretty cut and dry. Congress made its will known and said that those migrants would be allowed to apply for entry at legal border checkpoints.

Trump’s administration has made it clear that the matter is far from over, and that they would fight it tooth and nail in court.

The matter is made even more absurd by Trump’s deployment of troops at the Mexican border, with orders to use lethal force if necessary. The administration uses words like “crisis” and “invasion” to describe the band of tired, dusty, and dirty migrants fleeing persecution and violence. No wonder lawyers are lining up to take these idiots down free of charge. If you can do something to help make things right, then why not?

Trump thinks he’ll win eventually because a dumbed-down version of the aforementioned Muslim travel ban was eventually approved by the Supreme Court after a 5-4 vote. The order allowing migrants to apply for asylum will be in effect through December 19. Then the conversation will begin again.


The McMartin Preschool Trial

The McMartin Preschool Trial is considered to be the most expensive trial in United History costing around $15 million. After the initial accusation in 1983, the trial ended in 1990 making it the longest trial in United States History. In the end, there were no convictions and all charges were dropped. So where and how did this all go wrong?

Background 

The McMartin Preschool Trial was a trial prosecuted by the Los Angeles District Attorney for alleged day care sexual abuse. The McMartin family operated a preschool in California and were accused of sexual abuse by the children who attended the school.

Initial Allegations – 1983 

In August of 1983, a mother of one of the students, Judy Johnson pointed out to her doctor that she believed her son was anally penetrated. Her son identified the adult male as “Mr. Ray” from the McMartin Preschool. Ray Buckley was the grandson of the school’s found Virginia McMartin. There are conflicting reports on whether or not the son agreed with the fact that he was being sexually abused.

Johnson also accused the staff at the school of other acts including sex with animals and witchcraft such as flying. After being questioned Ray Buckley was arrested but was quickly released due to lack of evidence. There was also concern that Johnson’s son was too young to testify in court. This led to the police to send a form letter to all the parents of the students at the McMartin school. The letter said that their child might have been abused and that the parents should question their children about it. You can read the full transcript of the letter here. From this letter, 8 families stepped forward in the allegations of child abuse. Other families came forward with “possible abuse”.

Pretrial Investigations – 1984 to 1987 

Johnson was diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia and was found dead in her home in 1986 from complications due to chronic alcoholism. She died before the preliminary hearing.

Several hundred children were interviewed by the Children’s Institute International which is an abuse therapy clinic located in Los Angeles. During this time it was being run by Kee MacFarlane. They faced criticism for their techniques when interviewing children for being highly suggestive and to have children use their imagination about certain events. In the Spring of 1984, it was estimated that 360 children were abused at the McMartin Preschool. Medical examinations were performed and photos were taken of tiny scarring that looked like it could be from anal penetration. In the end, 41 children testified before the grand jury.

Furthermore, some of the allegations against the McMartin Preschool included satanic ritual abuse. Other accusations included witchcraft, flying, underground tunnels, and hot air balloon rides. A lot of the sexual abuse happened in these underground tunnels. However, upon investigation, no such underground tunnels were found. Other allegations included a game called “naked movie star” which was believed to be when the children would be photographed naked by the teachers. During the trial, the game was nothing more than a silly rhyme between children.

Michael P. Mahoney, an expert witness in clinical psychology was highly critical of how the children were interviewed. He referred to them as “improper, coercive, directive, problematic and adult-directed in a way that forced the children to follow a rigid script.” The recordings of these interviews played a huge part in why the jury did not opt to convict anyone.

Also during this time, there were issues with the prosecution office withholding evidence from the criminal defense team. Such evidence included the fact that Johnson was a schizophrenic. One of the original prosecutors left the case for moral and ethical reasons. He also accused the district attorney of lying to the courts and the defense team by withholding exonerating evidence against Ray Buckey.

Trial – 1987 to 1990

Virginia McMartin, Peggy McMartin Buckey, Ray Buckey, Peggy Buckey, Mary Ann Jackson, Betty Raidor, and Babette Spitler were all charged with 115 counts of child abuse involving 48 children. When a new district attorney was assigned to the case, the charges were dropped against Virginia McMartin, Peggy Ann Buckey, Mary Ann Jackson, Betty Raidor and Babette Spitler.

Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin Buckey were the only ones who remained in custody. Peggy McMartin’s bail was $1 million and Ray Buckey had been denied bail.

During the trial, inmate George Freeman was called to the stand and claimed that Ray Buckey confessed while they shared a cell. It was revealed that Freeman had perjured himself in several cases in exchange for favorable treatment for his criminal cases.

In 1990, after three years of testimony, and nine weeks of deliberation, the jury acquitted Peggy McMartin Buckey on all accounts. Ray Buckey, on the other hand, was cleared of 52 of 65 counts and was finally granted bail. At a press conference following the trial, the jurors believed that the children had been molested but the evidence did not prove that it had happened beyond a reasonable doubt.

The remaining 13 counts against Buckey were retried which led to a hung jury again with a majority of the votes leading to not guilty. The prosecution decided to stop trying to get a conviction and all charges were dropped. It’s important to note that he was in jail for 5 years without ever receiving a conviction.


Lawyers You’d Want To Have A Beer With

Most of us have this perception of lawyers as fancy individuals who make too much money, do a lot of work for the criminally insane, and don’t care of anyone but themselves. While that may be true of a few individuals out there, it’s not true of everyone. Lawyers are eternally stressed out because of the pressure associated with helping people stay afloat, and the negative connotation of the word “lawyer” just isn’t fair. Here are a few awesome lawyers you’d want to have a beer with if you ever met them on the street.

  1. Todd Belcore. This guy was named “Young Lawyer of the Year” by the Illinois State Bar Association in 2013 because he’s just plain awesome. He goes above and beyond the call of duty by helping those in poverty find gainful employment when it would otherwise be impossible due to background checks. It’s not that he believes that criminals should have it easy; it’s just that he believes that the foundation of our rehabilitation system should rely heavily on the idea of a second chance. In order to give his clients the best possible chance, he’s taught a whopping 43 workshops on maintaining good conduct in society and how to deal with complicated issues like expungement. He tries to help those who are serving more time than they should in over-crowded jails and prisons (which is most of them here in the U.S.)
  2. David Smith. He does a little bit of everything, and while he’s a jack of all trades, he still manages to be a master of all of them. He works as a law professor, but splits his time to help fund charities, volunteer at an orphanage, and provide services as a pro bono attorney. Right now, he’s working on the Cobell v. Salazaar case in order to keep the United States government accountable for its responsibilities toward Native Americans. The case centers around the Individual Indian trust and its half-million Native American beneficiaries.
  3. Tony Tolbert. Not everyone has to give time pro bono in order to do the right thing. Tolbert sacrificed his home to help a family living in poverty get back on its feet. They enjoyed a year without rent thanks to his “pay it forward” attitude.

What Is Small Claims Court?

You feel like you have been screwed. Yeah, it may be only a few hundred dollars, but on principle … you got screwed.

You have tenants who missed pent payments. You have a mechanic you paid to fix your car, but he didn’t’ fix the car. Your paid roofers to fix a leak and yet the leak is still there.

The amount you are missing is small enough that it would not make sense to hire legal representation and file an actual court claim, but it’s large enough that you can’t’ bring yourself to just forgive it and chalk it up as a lesson learned.

But gosh darn it, o principle … you’ve been screwed. You need to be whole.

Enter what is called small-claims court.

Small-claims court is an opportunity for people of the street to be lawyers, representing themselves in a claim for compensatory damages due to a loss from a breach of contract. The court features a judge and the two parties giving their cases for the claim or counterclaim and the judge ruling on a dollar amount based on the evidence provided. If you have ever seen the People’s Court or Judge Judy, this is basically how small claims court works. (Except the judges aren’t necessarily as snarky and opinionated as Judge Judy, as much as we all may like or hate her.)

Most states have a maximum amount of award for a small-claims court case; anything larger than that amount or includes any punitive damages would be bumped up a regular district court and would involve lawyers and all the associated expenses thereof.

Small-claims courts usually handle cases of less than $1,600-$2,000 and usually only require a small filing fee for the claim. The parties involved will have to appear before the judge and present their evidence (payment records, inventory of damages, a contract, etc.) that will support or refute the case. Usually, there is no punitive damage tacked on; it’s is usually decided who was the wronged party and how much did that person lose, and that becomes the award in the case

At some point, virtually everyone gets screwed (or scammed), and many of us are fortunate enough that we don’t lose our life savings or more in the process. But just on principle, even if we lose a few hundred dollars, we may want to pursue some relief if we tried to do the right thing and the other party wronged us by not doing the right thing. And of course, cheaters should never win.

Small-claims court is not something to be abused, but it can be a valuable tool in standing up for your rights when you are always looking to do the right thing by people and you’re not getting cooperation in that endeavor.