Large Firms Specialize in Pro Bono
by Karen Bries
Specializing in area makes for more collegiality; less learning curve.
A couple of years ago, the great pro bono debate sparked an interesting problem that the bar association and ultimately Metro Volunteer Lawyers (MVL) would have to figure out.
How can corporate transaction attorneys become comfortable dealing with a pro bono adoption or eviction case or municipal bond attorneys acquaint themselves with family law?
MVL has found an answer. Now, several mid- and large-sized firms have agreed to specialize in certain kinds of pro bono cases. Groups in the firms could be trained in the specialized area. Lawyers could become familiar with just one area of law and assist each other.
"We used to send random kinds of cases to a firm, and hope that an attorney would accept it. Now we know that when a certain case comes into MVL, we can send it to the firm specializing in that kind of case. It’ been a major benefit to the program to know the case will be handled expeditiously," MVL Executive Director Barbara Chamberlain says.
The idea started when Legal Aid (now Colorado Legal Services, CLS) asked attorneys at Holland & Hart to represent disabled children who lost Supplemental Security Income as a result of welfare reform.
Steve Choquette of Holland & Hart was one of the attorneys who was trained and helped handle the 60 cases.
"The reason our firm liked specializing was that people could exchange information on experts, legal issues and factual scenarios. It also added an element of collegiality," Choquette says.
Now Holland & Hart’s specialty is mobile home evictions and landlord/tenant.
"The best part of the training program was being taught by folks who know what they’re doing, like Melody Fuller of CLS. She served as a mentor and is a huge help. She even brought great written materials. The training puts attorneys light years ahead of where they would have been otherwise," Choquette says.
Steve Bell, coordinator for pro bono services at Dorsey and Whitney, says the firm’s attorneys voted to handle car repossession cases after MVL communicated the need. Dennis Walker provided the training.
These car repossession cases, he says, after a little education, are simple for first-year or last-year attorneys to take.
"For our large firm, we wanted something that would be good for everyone to do and not just what sometimes happens—litigators doing all of the pro bono work."
About half of the firm’s 34 lawyers participate. He also says the firm’s attorneys get a lot of personal satisfaction from helping indigent clients.
"The interesting part is not from legal analysis, but in meeting and helping someone who has a real legal need. Their car may be their source of livelihood, and the loss often affects people’s lives," Bell says.
Another attorney found that his own interests have spread within his firm.
Robert Barrett of Arnold & Porter and his wife had their first baby a year ago and thought about adopting a child.
"I started talking to people about it and the next step was helping with an adoption case."
Soon after, MVL organized a training program. Dan Sweetser of Robinson, Waters & D’Orisio gave them the basics.
"Since then, a number of associates have come to me to say they want to help once we get more cases."
About five other Dorsey and Whitney attorneys attended a CLE seminar in September concerning pro bono child abuse cases, and all plan to take a case.
For Barrett, this is how he likes to spend his pro bono time.
"I don’t want to write briefs for the ACLU; I want to help individuals. I feel lucky my firm supports my pro bono work," he says.
"I’d also like to develop this area of expertise for the future," he says.
Morgan Costello of Faegre & Benson says the firm has yet to start taking cases in their specialty—post-decree matters and contempt proceeding. This firm is going to put a different spin on delivery.
On the fourth Tuesday of every month, starting Oct. 23 at 1 p.m. at the City and County building, the firm will staff MVL clinics to assist clients with modifying divorce and custody orders.
"Last year, we sat down with judges, CLS and MVL. They said there were no legal services for clients with post-decree issues at the time, so we decided to do it."
Faegre and Benson also get their support staff involved.
"Our staff can help with financial affidavits and computing child support payments," Costello says.
MVL arranged a half-day training in post-decree matters. Joe Digregorio, Mike DiManna, Pamela Faris, Magistrate Elizabeth Leith, Bob Montgomery and Gina Weitzenkorn volunteered to train at the firm. About 50 of the firm’s employees attended. Costello videotaped the program for other attorneys who want to join the pro bono effort.
For those who may think this is the right pro bono choice for them, call Barb Chamberlain at (303) 866-0378. We hear there’s a need for a firm to take bankruptcy cases.