Keller Rohrback Attorneys Discuss the Challenges and Rewards of Pro Bono Work

 

In honor of the 10th anniversary of National Celebration of Pro Bono, we asked a few of our attorneys about their pro bono work:

Ron KilgardRon Kilgard

What motivates you to do pro bono work?

There are certain causes I care about, and as to those causes, I contribute money. But sometimes I feel that writing checks is too perfunctory. It’s valuable to the organizations, of course, but it doesn’t involve any part of oneself. I’ve long known of an immigration project here in Arizona, the Florence Project, that aids undocumented immigrants. A client of mine was active in the organization before he died, and I know a few people on the board. Late in 2016, though I am 30-plus year lawyer, I decided that I wanted to work on a case for an immigrant in removal proceedings here in Arizona; not merely contribute to Florence Project, but to do the work myself. And I wanted to do it all myself with a paralegal; not oversee an associate. This isn’t necessarily efficient, but it is a much deeper investment in the cause.

What are the challenges of doing pro bono work?

There are basically two challenges. The first is intellectual. I’m basically a pension plan lawyer. That’s what I’ve done since 1999: numerous class actions on behalf of participants in defined contribution and defined benefit pension plans, public and private. It is a complex, individual immigration case, first in federal district court in Phoenix, then in immigration court in Eloy, Arizona, and now in the Board of Immigration Appeals, in Falls Church, Virginia. The case has required me to learn, as best I can, a new body of law, the Immigration and Naturalization Act (“INA”) and its many ancillary statutes, regulations, procedures, case law, etc. This has been, to put it mildly, very difficult. I have been able to rely on mentors at the Florence Project and another organization, the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, and immigration mavens within the firm, for help. But I am still nervous about being in a practice area outside my comfort zone. On the other hand, it is “fun” to learn a new body of law, especially at my age.

The second challenge is not intellectual, but emotional. I represent a refugee from gang violence in Central America. He fears, and my two Central American experts say that his fear is well founded, that he will be tortured or murdered if he is removed, i.e., deported, to his home country. He has lived here since 2001; his daughter is in sixth grade. My child psychologist expert says that deportation will be devastating to the child. These are high stakes for an ordinary civil litigation lawyer. The paralegal and I who work on the case now know the client quite well; we knew him in detention, and we know him now out of detention. We know his child. We know the child’s mother. We have been in their apartment, have eaten with them, have been to appointments with them. In short, we know them and their fears very well. Like any lawyer, I’m disappointed when I lose, but here the stakes are very high. The challenge is to do first-rate legal work, which I and the paralegal on the case have tried hard to do, and to keep in mind the stakes, but not to be paralyzed by how high the stakes are.

What are the rewards?

The rewards are, first, the relatively minor intellectual one of learning a new body of law, facts, and experts, and second, the profound one of being able to help a frightened family in – it is not overstatement – a life and death case. Civil practitioners like me seldom have so much, so immediately, at stake. And I suppose there is one other reward. By doing a case like this, one learns a lot about what is really happening in the immigration system. News reporting and Op-Ed pieces are great, but until you’ve been in a for-profit immigration detention center (i.e., prison), and talked to the guards and the staff, and appeared before an immigration judge, and dealt with opposing DHS counsel, you don’t have first-hand knowledge of how it works. For me, it has mostly been pretty sobering. I had no idea a court system like this existed in America; it is far different from what I am used to. On the other hand, I have been flattened many times by the generosity of ordinary people. For example, my accountant, wanted to help gratis. That really makes one think all is not as dark as one thought.

 

Ian MensherIan Mensher 

What motivates you to do pro bono work?

It energizes me to know that I can use my privilege to help someone in need, and that my assistance may well be transformative, even if only in a limited way.

What are the challenges of doing pro bono work?

I often take on work in areas where I lack deep experience, which pushes me out of my comfort zone. And it can be challenging to balance my duties to other clients at the same time.

What are the rewards?

The gratification in knowing that I am providing my pro bono client with a voice that might not otherwise be heard in the legal process.

What are some of the cases you’ve worked on?

I have helped a grandmother adopt her granddaughter, a mother get a parenting plan and restraining order put in place to protect her young son, and a Rwandan persecuted for his political beliefs obtain asylum here in the United States.

 

Laura GerberLaura Gerber

What motivates you to do pro bono work?

I want to create a more fair and equitable society, and I want to use my skills and abilities to work toward that goal.

What are the challenges of doing pro bono work?

Learning new systems and getting up to speed on policies is always a challenge—but a rewarding one in the end. Balancing pro bono work with my regular caseload and duties is also a challenge.

What are the rewards?

There are many. I like playing a part in redressing historic wrongs. It’s exciting to learn new areas of law and get exposed to things that I typically don’t encounter in my day-to-day workAlso, the gratitude we receive from clients is its own reward.

What are some of the cases you’ve worked on?

A lot of my work is on the policy side through my work with the nonprofit Washington Appleseed. We are proud of our work supporting and providing resources for people reentering society after incarceration.

I also worked for the ACLU on Tarra Simmons’ amicus brief to the WA Supreme Court. This was an important case in terms of providing guidance on the qualifications for admission to practice law in Washington for applicants with a prior criminal record.

 

Mark GriffinMark Griffin

What motivates you to do pro bono work?

Legal scholars and the international community agree that a fair and impartial judicial system requires a right to counsel.

With criminal cases, the U.S. Constitution requires that defendants be provided representation at public expense, but there is no similar guarantee in civil cases. Along with contingent fee agreements and class action cases, pro bono work provides civil litigants with counsel. If only the wealthy have attorneys in civil cases, our judicial system is not just.

What are the challenges of doing pro bono work?

The challenge of doing pro bono work is the allocation of scarce resources. The need for pro bono work is so great that it is difficult to decide who to help.

What are the rewards?

The reward of doing pro bono work is justice. Even if your client loses the case, the attorney has contributed to a fair and impartial judicial system.

What are some of the cases you’ve worked on?

My pro bono work has focused on raising money for civil legal aid organizations in the state of Washington. Next year, I will serve as the president of the board of trustees of the Legal Foundation of Washington.

 

Tana LinTana Lin

What motivates you to do pro bono work?

My family faced many hardships common to immigrants, but many people helped us along the way. Through my pro bono work, I can honor those who helped me throughout my life and make a difference for those who need assistance now.

What are the challenges of doing pro bono work?

Juggling the demands of my regular case load, which don’t go away simply because I have taken on pro bono matters, is challenging as is sometimes needing to learn new areas of law.

What are the rewards?

I enjoy learning new areas of law that I might not otherwise be exposed to in my regular practice. But the real reward from pro bono work comes when you can be the voice for a client whose story might not otherwise be fully or properly told or heard.

What are some of the cases you’ve worked on?

As a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Washington, I am currently litigating Doe v. Trump, in which we have obtained an injunction on behalf of refugee clients seeking to uphold their rights to be reunified in this country with their spouses and children.

I also worked on an amicus brief in support of Tarra Simmons before the Washington Supreme Court. I was happy to play a small role in helping a very accomplished young woman obtain her license to practice law despite having made some serious mistakes in her past.

Before the laws were changed on the sealing of juvenile criminal records, I helped several young people seal their juvenile records so that mistakes of their youth would not prevent them from becoming productive members of our community. It was very satisfying to see my clients – who had not only repaid their debts to society but overcome so much and become role models to others – be able to move forward with their lives.

Firm News