Attorney Chris Edwards Wins Appeal In North Carolina Pro Bono Case

One of the practice areas in which there is an increased need for pro bono volunteers is family law — and we like to routinely recognize those attorneys who provide their time free of charge for impoverished clients whose lives are irrevocably changed by the effort. North Carolina attorney Chris Edwards has won a recent family law case on appeal that ended a mother’s parental rights on the basis that she was unfit. 

The name of the child that Edwards fought for has not been released.

The mother became pregnant after a period of sexual abuse when she was only thirteen years old. When she gave birth, her child was placed into foster care. She was placed in the care of the Department of Social Services (DSS). The goal of DSS was to eventually place the child into the grown mother’s care — but the court would ultimately decide whether or not that was to happen.

She was old enough to leave the custody of DSS in 2017. Two years later, in April of 2019, the DSS would argue in court that she should have her parental rights terminated. They cited NC General Statute 7B-1111, saying that the mother’s “neglect, willful failure to make reasonable progress, willful failure to pay a reasonable portion of her child’s cost of care, dependency, and willful abandonment” had contributed to the decision.

According to DSS, the mother had halted her education. She had dismissed parenting classes and therapy sessions, both of which were required for reunification with her child. DSS said she “disobeyed the rules of her placements and ran away.”

In September 2019, DSS won the case and the mother’s parental rights were terminated. She filed a notice of appeal. 

Edwards won the case when the appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision, writing: “The TPR order to determine whether the trial court’s finding of facts supports its conclusion. [The mother] willfully left [the child] in foster care or placement outside the home for more than twelve months.”

Edwards said, “The Court does not decide to terminate the rights of a parent lightly, and it shouldn’t. Despite being a difficult and heartbreaking case, we must always put the best interests of the child first, and the Court’s decision reaffirms that.”

How the mother responded to the verdict is unknown. Her supporters pointed out that she has led a difficult life as the result of her own abuse, and the public should not be so quick to judge her as unfit or uncaring. She will continue to make progress at her own pace and still hopes to someday be reunited with her child.

Philadelphia Couples Have Trouble Divorcing Because Of Money Issues

There was a rise in divorce applications following the 2020 holiday season — but not as much of one as expected, considering many Pennsylvania residents had been cooped up together for the duration of the season. Generally, many people wait out the holidays to apply for divorce in February or March, when the bank account is fuller. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, the money just isn’t there. And many impoverished state residents are paying a different price.

A 2019 survey conducted by Martindale-Nolo Research found that the average cost of divorce is $12,900. More than you expected? Well, it’s more than most Americans can afford. The cost goes down when an attorney guides the couple through the motions, but not everyone can afford one of those, either.

A recent Harvard Law School Study found that many people are trapped in loveless marriages because of the costs associated with divorce. Pro bono help is sorely needed, but there aren’t enough volunteers to fill the gap.

The study, which was published in PNAS, was conducted in Philadelphia County and found that pro bono help was more likely the longer a couple stays married.

Lead researcher Jim Greiner, Hon. S. William Green Professor of Public Law at Harvard Law School and Access to Justice Lab faculty director, said, “There is generally understood to be a constitutional right to a marriage, and a constitutional right to end your marriage. The Supreme Court has recognized the fact that divorce is one of the only legal contracts that the parties themselves cannot end without anybody else’s approval.”

And it’s that approval that costs money, even when both parties agree on terms.

Greiner said, “We asked folks why they didn’t want to be married anymore. Sometimes, someone had a single asset, such as a house, that they wanted to ensure wasn’t inherited by a person they had been separated from for 10 or 12 years.”

Marijuana Prosecution Leads To Lots Of Pro Bono Work

Many Americans have had an epiphany in recent years: perhaps prosecuting people for consuming marijuana isn’t the sensible thing to do. After all, why should our tax dollars be spent prosecuting and incarcerating people who aren’t actually harming anyone (except maybe themselves?). Shifting public opinions have resulted in the amount of marijuana-related pro bono work skyrocketing across the country.

An anonymous junior associate working for Hale Monico said, “Unless you’re living under a rock, you already know that African Americans and Caucasians use cannabis at about the same rate in the United States, but that the justice system targets African Americans at a disproportionate and unbalanced rate. It’s not about doing wrong. It’s about systemic racism. We can’t ignore it any longer.”

Even in states where marijuana has been legalized, people are still getting arrested for marijuana-related crimes. And residents are sick of it.

Colorado House Bill 1090 would change existing marijuana laws to streamline the process for sealing marijuana convictions on a criminal record and increase the amount of marijuana that state residents can legally carry on their person from one ounce to two ounces.

Colorado Representative Alex Valdez said, “We’re really looking for folks who had kind of a one-time hiccup … allowing those folks to get on with life.”

A man named Steve DeAngelo started the Last Prisoner Project in 2019 in order to provide resources to those who had been incarcerated for using marijuana. The organization includes advocates for reform and a number of pro bono lawyers who agree. Partner Jim Belushi said, “There’s no better hustler in the world that Steve DeAngelo. Man, he’s just relentless, and it’s beautiful to watch.”

According to Belushi, the project’s achievements have never been greater. They still need more investments of course, and he acknowledged that most of the legal work done on behalf of the group is pro bono. 

Belushi said, “And it would be great if people in the [cannabis] industry hire those that get out [of jail]. He added, “Cannabis is not a gateway to drugs. It’s a pathway to healing.”

Belushi agreed that change was happening all across the country. He said, “This is a very exciting time in the cannabis world. People have seen changes in others [who partake in cannabis]. Tumors are shrinking, seizures are stopping, people are sleeping and people are getting better. It’s interesting because, no matter if you’re conservative or liberal or old or young, everybody knows someone that has suffered deeply.”

Not sure that you agree with the legalization of cannabis? Here’s an interesting TED Talk that might shed more light on the subject — especially on the fact that we have not actually legalized marijuana at all.

North American Pro Bono Organizations Experience Unprecedented Budget Cuts

Ontario’s budget for legal aid was slashed by 30 percent in 2019, which amounted to about $60-70 million. More recently, the legal aid budget was squeezed even more due to the coronavirus pandemic. Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) provides pro bono services and funds private lawyers in order to reduce impacts on marginalized minority individuals and populations when they find themselves in court without representation.

LAO Executive Director Jack de Klerk said, “The elimination of positions [within legal clinics] will be inevitable.”

LAO provided a number of overtime hours for associates over the past year as a result of the pandemic — a reality that has exhausted its budget even faster. Volunteer criminal law attorneys are in short supply, but the demand for them has only increased.

Many politicians disproportionately place blame on individual lawyers and law firms for failing to meet the rising calls to action, but fail to take responsibility for their own program cuts or reducing budgets across the board.

Professor Trevor Farrow of Osgoode Hall Law School explains, “Having access to justice primarily means having available options to prevent, address problems…This requires more than traditional courts and lawyers.”

Farrow believes the burden of action therefore falls to judges and legislators too. 

Pro bono legal aid in the United States hasn’t fared much better over the past few years, which is mostly as a result of former President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, which targeted equal opportunity justice organizations. 

The federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) responded to those proposals with a pleading letter: “For over four decades, the LSC has provided essential financial support for nonprofit legal aid programs throughout the nation, which serve close to two million low-income individuals annually. Its elimination would price law out of reach for those who need it most.”

Income inequality is the heart of the matter — and it’s a topic becoming more and more popular with left-leaning populations who wish to help the impoverished.

Fresh Call To Action For Pro Bono Attorneys

A rebranding has transformed former New York state’s Monroe County Volunteer Legal Services Project into JustCause. The organization is making a small request of Rochester attorneys: donate just one hour of pro bono work this year. Considering most legal firms benefit greatly from pro bono work — as do their attorneys and clients — this isn’t a big ask. And it’s good for the community at large, too.

Executive Director Tina Foster is hoping that the 15-employee organization has 2,000 sign ups for the year. She said, “JustCause is a different kind of organization; we want our brand to communicate that to volunteers and clients alike. Law, yes; community, yes, but there’s more. There’s passion, there’s connection, there’s compassion…this is not a spectator sport. Justice requires action.”

Foster acknowledged that the last year alone saw 2,000 volunteers, and right now the rebranded organization is trying to keep commitment to its goals leveled out. Together, those volunteers handled around 10,000 pro bono cases — a huge accomplishment.

One of the biggest practice areas in need of pro bono work is Social Security and Disability Law. That’s because these clients are generally living in poverty — especially before they receive these benefits, which are far more likely to be denied without qualified legal assistance. For more information, visit website

New York State Senator Jeremy Cooney, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, and State Supreme Court Justice Craig Doran are all on board and expect great things of JustCause.

Cooney said, “Justice is action work, and we have to remember that at this time in our country, in New York, and right here in Rochester.

The state budget will support JustCause with a $3.5 million package for legal assistance primarily for Upstate NY residents. The city is its own entity. For comparison’s sake, JustCause has a total operating budget of $1.4 million a year.

Doran said, “Who do you go to when there’s no one else to go to for justice? That’s a word we use frequently, there’s a lot of talk about justice, who do you go to? The answer to that question is the people who work with, and volunteer for, JustCause.”

JustCause made strides toward alleviating pandemic financial stress for many impoverished families by partnering with local governments. It recently launched a county program called “right to counsel,” to support tenants who were facing eviction without any legal representation. This followed renewed interest in such programs for the past two years, which reached a boiling point because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

JustCause is asking for only one hour of time per year — but most attorneys who join the program will give many more.

Lexi Ragano Wins AMA Student Marketer of the Year Award

South Elgin, Illinois native Lexi Ragano has won the AMA Student Marketer of the Year award, which will be handed out next month. She received the award as the result of the work she did alongside the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater American Marketing Association chapter, which itself won the AMA International Chapter of the Year award, which will be given at the virtual International Collegiate Conference from April 8 to April 10. 

Ragano said, “I still can’t believe it. I was humbled just to be nominated, and then overwhelmed when I won. My name may be on the award, but it reflects all the support from the chapter advisors and my co-presidents and other AMA members. Dr. Andy Dahl was such a great mentor to me as well, and Dr. Jimmy Peltier really pushed me to be the student and professional I now am.”

The college has won the AMA International Chapter of the Year award for the last ten years running. Chapter co-president Brianna Oelke said, “AMA has been a huge part of my collegiate career, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It provides so many real-life experiences that a classroom just can’t give. It also gives students many opportunities to travel and build their network while showing off their skills to future employers.”

Oelke was fortunate enough to be recruited by Dallas, Texas company PepsiCo for a sales management position.

Marketing major and chapter co-president Alec Arndt said, “We had to be at our best for the whole year. And in this year of hardship, one of our major goals was to give back to the community and all AMA members. This included pro bono work for local businesses, external competitions to provide other chapter’s opportunities to compete and earn money, and raising the most donations by any chapter for the AMA Foundation’s Giving Tuesday.”

Pro Bono Work Leads To Father’s Release From Life Sentence

Clifton Jones was convicted of killing his son CJ in 2007 after the infant died of “shaken baby syndrome,” which is considered child abuse and occurs when a child suffers whiplash as the result of frenetic shaking. This can occur in as little as five seconds and normally causes severe brain damage. Pro bono work eventually led to Jones’s release from California Soledad State Prison, where he would have likely spent the rest of his life.

The pro bono duo, Keker partner Khari Tillery and firm associate Anjali Srinivasan, were joined by Northern California Project Innocence attorney Paige Kaneb. They were presented the Pro Bono Heroes award for April 2021 after they convinced the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office that he had been convicted on misleading or incorrect information as the result of scientific data that has since changed a great deal.

Their request? Jones should be released immediately, and then resentenced based on fairer charges.  

Tillery said, “This is the highest and best use of my law degree, to represent people who have had the weight of the criminal justice system unfairly leveled against them.”

Srinivasan said, “I don’t think we can ever really deliver justice for Clifton. We’ll never be able to right that [15 years in prison]. But it feels good to at least give him a second chance.”

Many adults have been convicted of manslaughter or murder on the assumption that they physically abused their infant children — but the medical community now has a greater understand of the additional factors that can cause shaken baby syndrome to present. You can visit website if you grew up after suffering shaken baby syndrome. 

A number of these convictions have since been overturned based on new information.

Zavion Johnson was convicted of murder when his 4-month-old died in 2001 — but Tillery and Kaneb won his release in 2017. He had argued that his daughter slipped through his arms to hit her head. The prosecutors didn’t believe him. According to them, the injuries were the result of shaken baby syndrome.

After new medical research was acquired nearly two decades later, the same experts who spoke for the prosecution rescinded their previous testimony to say that the injuries could indeed have been incurred due to a fall.

Jones said that CJ’s injury was the result of a fall as well — but prosecutors didn’t believe him, either. He was convicted by a unanimous jury decision for involuntary manslaughter. The same jury was split over whether or not he committed child abuse homicide, however, but after a retrial he was found guilty for the second charge. Because of that second trial, he would not have been eligible for parole until the year 2027.

Eventually, the District Attorney acknowledged the changes in medical science and dropped the second charge. Jones was released with time served. 

Tillery said that he and Jones were able to then visit his child’s grave: “It was incredibly gut-wrenching and also very beautiful. Clifton was arrested the day after his son died. He could never properly grieve the loss of his child.”

Gibbons PC Awarded 2021 John Minor Wisdom Public Service And Professionalism Award

The John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professionalism Award goes to the United States law firms that “have made outstanding contributions to the quality of justice in their communities, ensuring that the legal system is open and available to all” and is provided by the American Bar Association (ABA). It usually goes to a firm with a high number of pro bono cases. This year’s recipient was Gibbons P.C.

Those interested can tune into the 2021 Virtual Litigation Section Annual Conference, where Gibbons P.C. will presumably accept the award.

Patrick Dunican, Chairman and Managing Director for Gibbons P.C., said, “The outstanding quality of the service Gibbons attorneys provide to clients is matched by the exceptional dedication of those same attorneys to working in the public interest and giving back to their communities.”

Dunican added, “Among the award’s main criteria is ‘commitment to disadvantaged, disenfranchised or other underrepresented individuals or groups,’ which Gibbons attorneys have displayed with remarkable skill and heart dating back to the firm’s earliest days.”

Executive Director Cathy Keenan of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice wrote on behalf of Gibbons: “Gibbons contributes significantly to the needs of the most vulnerable in our community, particularly veterans, families with special-needs children and those in criminal reentry. Gibbons attorneys donate their time and expertise at limited scope legal clinics where they counsel veterans on how to resolve outstanding suspensions and restore their driving privileges, leading to gainful employment, family reunification and productive citizenship.”

The Gibbons firm promotes pro bono legal work with two specific programs that its associates can join: the John J. Gibbons Fellowship in Public Interest and Constitutional Law, and Gibbons Cares.

CEO of IFEL Jill Johnson said, “In 2020, Gibbons P.C. dedicated 624 hours of focused, impactful legal pro bono work at a value of over $249,000 in support of the Small Businesses Need Us program.”

Why Law Firms Do Pro Bono Work For Impoverished Clients

The entire point of a career in law is helping people. Lawyers are probably one of the least trusted professions on the planet — and that’s because the highest profile lawyers are usually the least trustworthy people alive. But that’s not true of everyone else. In general, lawyers are just trying to do what they think is right for the greater good. Keeping the communities we serve in one piece is what it’s all about. And that’s one reason why pro bono work is so important.

Law associate Sonja Sahlsten said that every pro bono case can expand personal horizons and help with bigger cases she knows less about: “Through my pro bono work, I have learned the nuances of sentencing law. My first foray was into federal sentencing through my work on a clemency case. More recently, I have focused on juvenile resentencing cases under DC’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, which provides an opportunity for a sentence reduction for people who committed their crimes as juveniles, have served more than 15 years, and do not pose a danger to the community.”

And it’s about more than just learning.

Fellow associate Pejmon Pashai had a different take. It’s more about becoming more comfortable: “At first, I was apprehensive about stepping outside of my legal ‘comfort zone’ and taking point on a case that could drastically affect my client’s quality of life. Being the primary problem solver in a case is not my typical role as a junior associate. But I knew that my client was counting on me and that I had to deliver, which meant taking the frantic phone calls on a Sunday night when my client’s laundry room nearly caught fire or when her building became an unabated rat den.” 

Junior associates are typically the grunts in most law firm offices. They do the majority of the leg work, while the partners or other veteran lawyers take on the case when it ends up in court. But everyone needs to start somewhere. Pro bono work often strikes two birds with one stone: you help out someone in need for a case few others would want, and also gain valuable experience in the process. And that experience can be priceless for both lawyer and client.

Sonja added, “Pro bono has provided a lot of the big ‘firsts’ of my career. The first time I spoke in court was in a pro bono case. The first time I was entirely responsible for drafting a motion was in a pro bono case. Last month, I did the first closing argument of my career at a resentencing hearing.”

One of the practice areas that get the most pro bono requests is family law ( Many families can’t afford the price tag often associated with divorce, which means they’re more likely to be depressed or suffer from symptoms associated with financial ruin. 

Pandemic Spurs Pro Bono Service Growth In 2020

The Financial Planning Association was a major player in pro bono services in 2020, a year that led to unprecedented growth. The FPA provided legal aid to nearly 8,000 individuals in need in 2020, which represents a 7 percent increase from the preceding year. Nearly 1,000 lawyers gave away approximately 14,750 hours of pro bono time to offer financial advice and legal support to members of the community.

Many of these services were offered virtually because of the constrictions placed on the lawyers by the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in government regulations that prevented many lawyers from meeting with potential pro bono clients in person.

Unfortunately, not every pro bono case means a win in court.

Honorable mentions go to a group of law firms in Los Angeles. Last month, they filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Superior Court to request a temporary stop to eviction hearings during the pandemic. The legal basis was sound: A CDC-mandated eviction moratorium is still in place all across the country because of the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic, so the need for eviction hearings is currently moot. But the legal request was worded to request these hearings cease until COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency.

But Orange County Superior Court Judge William Claster said, “I read that, and I thought, ‘Wow, that may be years.’”

The pro bono law firms said that clients could not socially distance in courtrooms, which is unfair to those who have already been adversely affected by the economic ramifications of the virus. Many have already lost jobs, businesses, or loved ones — and now the LA Superior Court system is asking them to appear for in-person hearings, putting them at even greater risk? It seemed unfair and unlawful, but the judge disagreed.

Claster added, “How does the injunction ever end? You’re asking me to — these are my words — shut down a significant portion of the superior court system.”