A Reflection On Pro Bono Work
by Robert E. Harrington
When I spoke to members of our Bar during last May's annual meeting, I borrowed a line from my friend and partner John Wester, a former president of the North Carolina Bar Association, and said that many of our Mecklenburg County neighbors need services that "only lawyers can provide." I said then how much I looked forward to working this year with the Bar's pro bono lawyers and our legal services collaborative organizations, including Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont, Legal Aid of North Carolina, the Council for Children's Rights and others. So, this month I thought we would reflect on some of the pro bono work our lawyers have done.
I reached out to several of our colleagues, and I was struck both by the willingness of lawyers to take time out of their busy schedules to share the pro bono work they have done and by the passion of their stories. These stories serve as a reminder that our neighbors really do need our help and we really do grow with the opportunity to help those in need.
One case involved a young working mother, we'll call her Susan. Susan rented a home in Charlotte, paying $600 per month. After moving in, she learned that the bathroom floor was rotten, the furnace needed maintenance, and the floor covering was torn, among other problems. She complained to her landlord, who refused to repair the home, pointing to the "AS IS" provisions in the lease. Susan then called the Charlotte housing inspector, who documented multiple violations of the housing code, some of which were imminently dangerous. Still, the landlord did nothing. Eventually, a violent thunderstorm broke a huge tree limb that knocked the circuit box from the side of the house. Susan and her family had to move to a motel temporarily, while she had the limb removed and power restored. The landlord responded by filing a complaint in summary ejectment. Susan came to Legal Aid for help. Through Legal Aid, one of our Bar members represented Susan in small claims court, filing counterclaims for breach of implied warranty of habitability and unfair trade practices. Susan won. The landlord's eviction claim was dismissed, and Susan was awarded $5,000 on her claims, allowing her and her family to move on with their lives.
In another series of cases, several lawyers from one of our local firms, working through Legal Aid, have represented domestic abuse victims sorting out the impact of a North Carolina Court of Appeals decision that voided consent domestic violence protection orders entered without specific findings of fact. As a result, numerous victims were at risk of having their domestic violence cases reopened and being forced to face their abusers anew. As one of the volunteer lawyers observed, the challenge for these victims was two-fold -- restoring their faith in the legal process and providing them with the legal protection they deserved. The lawyers have served these victims well. One remarked that his work on these cases "was the best legal work for his soul that he did in 2012."
And these stories can be inspirational in very different ways. There's the story of Marcus, whose parents were never married, but lived together in his mother's house when she became pregnant with him. Marcus's father physically abused his mother and left the home when Marcus was only months old. By the time Marcus was five, his father had matured, stabilized, taken a job, and wanted to be involved in Marcus's life. Understandably, remembering his abuse, Marcus's mother resisted, even moving so that his father couldn't find them. Ultimately, after a series of painful twists and turns, the district court appointed an advocacy team from the Council for Children's Rights, consisting of a staff attorney and a volunteer attorney. After much work, the team convinced Marcus's mother that a positive relationship with his father was best for Marcus, and convinced his father to take parenting classes. Marcus now spends time with both parents. The court entered a permanent order confirming the arrangement without a trial.
Another member of our Bar shared his story of working with Legal Services in an effort to obtain Medicaid benefits for a client suffering with posttraumatic stress and related disorders. The county Department of Social Services denied her claim for benefits and her appeal. With the help of her pro bono attorney, the client appealed to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. After appeal and oral argument, DHHS reversed the DSS order, clearing the way for the client to receive benefits.
The Bar itself has worked hard to increase our capacity to provide services "in the gaps" of areas covered by our legal services colleagues. Among other cases in recent months, our lawyers working through the Bar have helped secure 501(c)(3) status for a neighborhood group providing a summer reading program, neighborhood watch program, and neighborhood clean-up for a determined, but fragile, Charlotte community. Another set of lawyers has helped secure 501(c)(3) status for an organization using hip-hop to promote positive change for youth and their families. Yet another attorney drafted governance documents for a nonprofit organized to rescue dogs from "high kill" shelters in the Charlotte area, an organization that, since April 2010 has helped save more than 1,200 animals from being euthanized.
The pro bono work these Mecklenburg County Bar members have done has changed the lives of clients. But this work has also changed our Bar members' lives. And only we can do it. As hard as these clients work, they can't go it alone. There are pro bono opportunities for all of us, no matter our practices or experience. If there's anything we should be about as members of the organized Bar, it's providing and supporting pro bono services to our neighbors.