When Laura Bernescu was 9, her family immigrated to the United States. Her father had left Romania to apply for asylum, with the rest of the family following five years later.
“It was my first experience seeing the struggles faced by those who are unfamiliar with the legal system, unaware of its inner workings and have language and cultural barriers that present their own sets of challenges,” Bernescu said.
Spurred by this, Bernescu knew early on that she wanted a career in law. She attended the University of Chicago Law School then joined Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as an associate. Aside from her everyday job, Bernescu prides herself in the pro bono work she does, including the work with the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.
Chicago Lawyer: What type of pro bono work do you do?
Bernescu: Most recently, I’ve been involved in working with CAASE — the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. I partnered with CAASE on a lawsuit where we represent a woman who was raped in 2011. We are bringing a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator of that rape. That’s something that we can now do under the Illinois Gender Violence Act. So we are teaming up to bring that lawsuit. I have also worked on a number of other pro bono matters related to immigration, prisoner litigation, workers’ rights and a variety of other subject areas.
CL: What drew you to this type of volunteer work? How long have you been doing it?
Bernescu: Pro bono work in general has been something that I’ve been interested in for a long time, probably even before I was a lawyer. I have always wanted to help others by using the skills and knowledge that I have acquired.
While in law school, I had the opposite side of that experience and was able to see the benefits of my legal education and advocacy training. When I was finally eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, I applied through the Chicago office since I was living here for law school.
During the interview process, my interviewer initially denied my application because of a discrepancy between my current school address and my permanent address, which is where my parents were living. Because he believed I’d applied through the wrong office he wanted to deny my application, which would have meant waiting an additional several months and reapplying, only after repaying the hundreds of dollars the application had already cost in the first place.
At that point, I was in my second year of law school and had some understanding of how the process should work and how to advocate for myself. Instead of accepting his decision, I asked to speak to his supervisor and explained my predicament and the impossibility of applying through the New Jersey office, where my permanent address was located, as a full-time student who would have had to travel to New Jersey for the citizenship interview with less than a week’s notice.
Finally, I was able to convince the supervisor and the interviewer that, as a student, applying at the location of my temporary address was appropriate. And they reversed the initial decision and approved me on the spot.
That was one of the first instances where I realized that had I not had the education and privileges that I’ve had, and the skills that I’ve been lucky enough to learn, I would have had no choice but to accept their initial decision, wait the additional time, reapply and go through the process all over again.
It made me really think of just how many people must be in a position where they don’t feel empowered or knowledgeable enough to stand up and advocate for themselves and how important it is, as trained lawyers, to help those in that position.
CL: What is the most beneficial part of the work you do?
Bernescu: It’s extremely rewarding to be able to help somebody in what’s usually a time of crisis for them. For a lot of people it’s one of the first times that they have to interact with the legal system and to be able to help them during that experience is personally and morally rewarding.
Beyond that, it is also professionally fulfilling to have the opportunity to do a different kind of work from what many of us do on a daily basis. It’s also a great way to develop new skills and have responsibility for a case beyond what we may have opportunities to do in our regular day-to-day work.
CL: What piece of advice would you give to other lawyers who want to get involved in the community but don’t know where to turn?
Bernescu: For those that have a special interest in a particular area of law or subject matter, I think it’s important to get in touch with specialized legal aid organizations. CAASE, for example, is a great organization to connect with if you are interested in issues dealing with sexual assault and sexual exploitation. By reaching out to those types of organizations, you can find out what resources they have and what help they might need.
Specialized legal aid organizations are a great resource for specific subject matters and a great way to get involved because they often have the institutional knowledge and experience to help you get started. And they’re always looking for additional help.
For people who maybe don’t already have an area that they’re interested in, there are many groups in Chicago such as general legal aid organizations that are always in need of volunteers and have great opportunities for attorneys to get involved.
I think it’s always a good idea to attend presentations or events sponsored by legal aid organizations. Even if there isn’t a presentation offered by one of those organizations, you can get in touch with the organization directly or, reach out to your firm’s pro bono resources, and they may be able to help you identify an area of interest that would be a good fit.
CL: What would you say to someone interested in volunteering with CAASE in particular?
Bernescu: For people who are potentially interested in working in the area of gender violence or sexual exploitation, CAASE is a great organization to partner with on pro bono matters. It’s an opportunity not just to give back and work on behalf of someone who really needs it while getting valuable experience, but it’s also an opportunity to develop expertise in a fairly new area of law.
Read the full interview at chicagolawyermagazine.com.