Margaret Benson

Chicago Volunteer Legal Services

November 2011
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Pro Bono

In their words

It's not unusual for an attorney to get a heartfelt thank-you letter from a grateful client like the one that solo practitioner Colleen Stevenson recently received from her client Carol.

"I would like to thank (the) wonderful Colleen Stevenson for the assistance I received in maintaining possession of my house. There's no doubt in my mind that if it were not for Colleen I would not have been able to remain in my home.

"Despite encountering one stumbling block after another, Colleen stuck with me and hammered away until my bank finally agreed to renew my note.

"Colleen said that my dilemma was not typical, but, its unusual nature notwithstanding, she was able to prevail. And for that I cannot thank Colleen enough."

In the pro bono world, a wonderfully articulate thank you from a happy client is addicting, keeping volunteers coming back for more.

But, truth be told, even the best, most successful pro bono attorney doesn't get a nice thank-you note every day. And, they certainly don't get paychecks.

So, as the holiday dedicated to gratitude approaches, consider what makes a pro bono attorney thankful.

Colleen, the above mentioned foreclosure maven, is grateful for the clients. "Pro bono work is a deeply gratifying experience. It enables me to help someone who otherwise may feel helpless, hopeless and without resources to solve a legal problem. I once heard that the reason we have two hands is that one is to hang on with and the other is to reach out to someone else."

Some attorneys like the parity of pro bono. Folarin Dosunmu, an associate in Skadden's corporate restructuring department, is thankful that pro bono allows him to level the playing field and make the legal system fairer because, "Everyone deserves access to the law."

Kirkland & Ellis partner Jordan Heinz recently won an award for his extensive pro bono work.

Other than a nice plaque, he is grateful for the perspective pro bono provides. "I'm thankful that pro bono gives me a glimpse into the many ways the legal system touches lives: At the beginning of life with adoptions, at the end of life with adult guardianship cases and in between. Without pro bono, I would only have a narrow view of the legal system and its impact."

Cook County Circuit Judge Michael B. Hyman has gone from practicing pro bono as an attorney to preaching the gospel of pro bono from his bully pulpit in the Chancery Court. Judge Hyman, who coined this year's Pro Bono Week theme, "Kindness to Strangers," is grateful for, "the sense of goodwill which nourishes the soul; the sense of self-fulfillment which comes from knowing that one has given hope or help or a hand to someone in difficulty; the sense of community that holds us together as human beings."

McDermott Will & Emery partner Todd Solomon is thankful to work at a place that is dedicated to pro bono and giving back to the community.

"The fact that I even get the opportunity to do this as part of my job is just awesome. I am also thankful for the gratitude and appreciation shown by pro bono clients. Nothing feels better than helping someone in need who would not otherwise have the means to obtain legal assistance."

Baker & McKenzie associate Sasha Reyes began volunteering right out of law school. Nearly 10 years later and many pro bono hours later, what makes her thankful?

"There are lots of reasons why it is gratifying for me. Flexing your 'lawyer muscles' in court for those like me who don't regularly litigate in our 'real' practice, the basic good feeling of helping someone less fortunate, meeting my obligation under my bar oath, etc. But I think the more complex reason I find it gratifying has to do with solving the client's problem.

"Despite what those outside of the legal field might think, attorneys are really 'problem solvers' or at least that is how I think of my job. It is very gratifying to solve a problem for pro bono clients.

"Often, when you first meet them, you can see that they feel stuck, hopeless and frustrated. They are yearning for you to be able to fix their problem. I am so thrilled when I can take them from that state of mind to the point of solving the problem. While I also get satisfaction in doing that for a paying client, there is something special about doing it for clients for whom intractable problems may be a part of their daily existence — who are used to hearing no instead of yes. I like being able to show them that they are worthy of having their problem solved just like those of us with more resources."

Thank you to all pro bono attorneys, everywhere.