In Their Words: Associates' Lessons From Pro Bono Work

By Aebra Coe | October 26, 2022, 2:51 PM EDT ·

Taking on a pro bono matter can be a transformative experience for a new attorney, helping them develop vital legal skills and see the world from the perspective of someone in need whose future hangs in the balance of the legal system.

While the societal benefits of pro bono work may be obvious — improved access to justice — there is also a lot that lawyers themselves stand to gain from putting in their pro bono hours.

Pro bono work can be a learning experience on a number of different levels, including gaining insight into the life of a person facing a life-altering legal challenge, taking early responsibility over a case, learning how to work efficiently with co-counsel and opposing counsel, and being reminded of the enormous responsibility lawyers have to society as advocates within the justice system.

Here, during the American Bar Association's 2022 National Celebration of Pro Bono, associates at 12 law firms share their stories and the lessons they've learned from the recent pro bono work they've taken on.

These quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

Learning to Tune Into and Empathize With Clients

Brian Druchniak

Jenner & Block

"I represented a Nicaraguan political activist who helped organize demonstrations to oppose the authoritarian regime of Daniel Ortega. After months of threats from government agents, she finally fled the country when paramilitary fighters came to her home.

But as strong and steely as our client was, she had her limits. Beyond all the other challenges in life she faced as a refugee, she and her daughter had COVID not long before the hearing. When my client came to Chicago to meet and prepare in person — for the first time — before her hearing, her daughter's positive COVID test forced her to go back to her hotel. After a few hours of working with her via translator on Zoom to make sure her answers did not appear to contradict any single detail in her affidavit, her patience was frayed.

During a break, a member of our team gave me invaluable advice. Our client's story was compelling, heartbreaking. Our client was frustrated, exhausted and scared that if she did something wrong she may put her family's lives in jeopardy. I needed to make sure she could tell her story, not force her to second-guess herself. After the break, I told our client I thought we should change our approach — we would go through the exam once, and as long as she felt comfortable afterward, we would be fully confident about the hearing the next day. It worked. During the recess after our client's direct testimony at the hearing, the government's lawyer said she would no longer oppose our client's petition. The judge granted her asylum from the bench.

Ultimately, my pro bono experience taught me how crucial it is to understand and empathize with my clients. Sometimes that may mean stepping back and reevaluating what I think is the best way to prepare and handle a matter. While the stakes for my paying clients are unlikely to be as urgent as in my client's asylum hearing, it is still a lesson that I will try to apply throughout my career."

Pauline M. Tarife

Bressler Amery & Ross

"As a fourth-year associate, I volunteered as a pro bono attorney with Partners for Women and Justice, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to making a difference in the lives of domestic violence and sexual assault victims. My current client [through that volunteer experience] is seeking a final restraining order against her former partner, with whom they share two daughters.

I have learned a lot from this matter. Most of the cases I handle involve large corporations, limited client interaction and swift settlements. This pro bono case was different. I connected with the client immediately, listened to her story, built a foundation of trust and took the matter by the proverbial horns. I was nervous in court, and my client was even more so, considering the long history of abuse experienced at the hands of a man she had once cared for — a man represented by his own counsel and prepared to defend what would become highly adversarial litigation.

Her story gave me the confidence to meticulously advocate for her. As lawyers, we are entrusted with the responsibility of assisting those in need. The matter is ongoing, and the second day of trial has been scheduled. There have been bumps in the road and adjournments; however, we are hopeful for a positive outcome. The client deserves to live a life free of violence and one where she can raise her children in a peaceful, safe environment. From my own perspective, I've gained confidence in court and a plethora of trial skills that I may not have had until much further down the line in a typical law firm setting. For that, I'm incredibly grateful and look forward to continuing my pro bono work for the years to come."

Caitlin McKenna

Morgan Lewis & Bockius

"I have volunteered as a child advocate with the Support Center for Child Advocates in dependency proceedings in Philadelphia's family court for nearly 10 years. Currently, I represent a group of five siblings who were abused and neglected by their parents and caregivers, causing them to be placed in foster care for the past several years. Each child has unique therapeutic, medical and educational needs. With the help of several interagency teams and our collaborative advocacy, the children are doing well and ever nearing the stability that they deserve.

This representation has reminded me that dedicated advocates who are willing to persist, for example by asking the sometimes difficult questions that address their client's needs until a satisfactory answer is given, can find the resources required to really help them. The willingness to care and provide does exist in our community, and it's our job as pro bono attorneys to navigate the path to make the necessary and often life-changing connections for our clients. My efforts on behalf of these children have made me a better lawyer by testing my problem-solving skills and my ability to bring a team together in order to best serve them."

Elsy M. Ramos Velasquez

Clark Hill

"Over the past year, I have assisted numerous individuals in their immigration cases. I represent a family from Afghanistan seeking asylum in the United States. The father worked for the Afghanistan government and supported U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan for many years. As a result, he was targeted by the Taliban. His home was attacked, he was shot and seriously injured, and his brother was killed. I also represent a sexual assault victim who became pregnant with her assailant's child and fled the country at the young age of 14.

My clients have taught me to be resilient. I leave the office every day inspired and encouraged. I am a better attorney because of the work I do every day representing individuals who have overcome so many adversities. I am a better advocate because I have the privilege of sharing their stories. These cases push me to think outside the box and to look at the law with a closer eye."

How to Be a More Skilled Lawyer

Chloe Holt

Willkie Farr & Gallagher

"Since my first day at a law firm as a summer associate, I have worked on a prisoner civil rights case. Our client was diagnosed with kidney cancer while in Illinois state prison, and we brought suit against the private corporation charged with health care of Illinois prisoners for the unreasonable delays in our client's cancer diagnosis and treatment.

At the end of my first year of practice, my team and I tried the case before a federal jury. This experience was invaluable because I was able to litigate a case from beginning to end at the outset of my career. I was able to take my first depositions and witness examinations at trial and observe and learn from the more experienced attorneys on my team throughout the trial. Trying a case early on has helped me focus on the bigger strategic picture in my other cases from the beginning, and to be more aware of the effects of early-stage decisions and actions down the road. For example, I learned the importance of creating a clear record by asking careful questions — and knowing when not to ask a question — in depositions that might later be read aloud at trial.

Most importantly, my pro bono work has helped me see the impact litigation can have on our clients' lives. Getting to know our client and his family was a privilege, and I will never forget crying tears of joy with our client as the verdict in his favor was read."

Mike Duke

Selendy Gay Elsberg

"For the past three years, Selendy Gay Elsberg has worked with The Legal Aid Society to protect the millions of tenants who depend on New York's rent stabilization laws. After landlords filed five separate suits in federal court asserting that the rent stabilization laws should be struck down or rolled back as constituting illegal takings or violating due process, we intervened on behalf of tenant advocacy groups to defend the constitutionality of the laws, alongside the state and the city. We succeeded at the district court, and all five cases are currently pending before the Second Circuit.

These complex cases — from briefing to case management and oral arguments — have shown me that building compelling arguments takes a village. At every step of these cases, our arguments became sharper through collaboration with colleagues at all levels. I have come to embrace feedback and to seek out and test more ideas with my team. I am not in it alone, and my arguments and relationships with colleagues, as well as my legal skills, have become stronger as a result."

Usman Khan

Fish & Richardson

"As an associate working on intellectual property matters, oftentimes my work can seem tangential to some of the most critical global and societal issues facing our planet. This feeling of disconnection can make one feel less fulfilled as a lawyer, especially if one is not working directly to help those most vulnerable in society and can appreciate the privileged position that lawyers are in. My pro bono practice helps fill this void and allows me to engage and assist those most in need in a direct and measurable way.

In 2021, as the Taliban came back to power and Afghanistan was thrown into chaos, many families were separated and numerous lives were permanently changed within a few days. The family I have worked with over the last year was one of them, and as their misfortune would have it, they were moved from Afghanistan to Ukraine, only to face another war and displacement. With some luck and amazing support from my firm, we were able to help this family move through multiple war zones and conflicts to eventually settle in Northern Virginia to begin a new life. In addition to being able to give back, by virtue of my pro bono practice, I am able to gain periodic exposure to a new area of law and sharpen my legal and advocacy skills in that area. Thus, my pro bono work really helps me feel more complete as a human being and as a legal practitioner."

Alexander Harding

Finnegan Henderson Farabow Garrett & Dunner

"This year, I had the privilege to be on a small pro bono team representing U.S. Navy veteran Adolfo Arellano before the Supreme Court in the veteran disability case Arellano v. McDonough.

After surviving an aircraft carrier collision while serving in the Navy, Mr. Arellano was unable to apply for retroactive benefits within the statutory one-year window following his discharge. We asked the Supreme Court to consider whether the legal principle of equitable tolling may apply to veterans like Mr. Arellano who are prevented from meeting the statutory one-year deadline to seek retroactive disability benefits. A ruling in favor of Mr. Arellano has the potential to allow thousands of current and future veterans to ask for extra time to file under their circumstances.

Pro bono work is a superb way to gain experience and perspective as a young lawyer. You, as an associate, can take the front seat on legal theories, you can draft portions of briefs and you can get one-on-one time with your client. In our competitive field, learning any one of these skills would be dividends enough. But you will also begin to appreciate that as lawyers, we are a pretty fortunate bunch. We've benefited from an education that allows us to have an impact on someone else's life. Pro bono lets you make that impact a lasting, positive one for someone who otherwise wouldn't have access to justice."

That a Law Degree Offers an Opportunity to Change the World

Geoffrey M. Pipoly

Mayer Brown

"In 2020 and 2021, I authored two pro bono amicus briefs in federal appellate courts on the subject of transgender rights. The briefs were on behalf of several dozen legal ethics scholars from across the country, and argued that common courtesy — which underpins the codes of legal and judicial ethics — dictates that courts should refer to transgender persons as they wish to be referred.

My biggest takeaway from that work — and indeed from all my pro bono work — is the reminder that lawyers can be a force for positive change in the world. This might seem like an obvious point — after all, nearly every legal drama in television and on film seems bent on driving home the lawyer-as-changemaker narrative. But all too often I find myself forgetting that what we do — what we are empowered by virtue of our licenses to do — is directly affect other human beings' lives. I think too many of us forget that, especially those of us in the private sector, but it's true. Trite as it may sound, pro bono work is the thing that taps me on the shoulder from time to time in order to remind me that one of the reasons I went to law school in the first place is to leave the world just a little bit better than I found it."

Jovana Crncevic


"I am proud to be part of the Withers team that filed an amicus brief on behalf of the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to health, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, and other U.N. mandate holders in the U.S. Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization in support of the respondent abortion providers who challenged the constitutionality of Mississippi's abortion ban.

Our brief detailed how the United States' binding obligations under international human rights treaties require it to ensure abortion access as an integral part of the right to equality and freedom from nondiscrimination, the right to privacy, the right to life, the right to health and the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. While the Supreme Court's majority opinion overturning the constitutional protection for abortion access enshrined in Roe v. Wade did not have regard to U.S. human rights obligations, the dissenting justices noted the global trend toward increased provision of abortion access — a trend with which the United States is now out of step.

Working on the amicus brief was a privilege that came with many professional and personal lessons. Key among these lessons is that defending human rights is a relentless effort that must be taken up again and again in the face of those seeking to dismantle these hard-fought and hard-won protections. Working on the Dobbs case has further strengthened my resolve to bring international law to the forefront of the fight for the United States to comply with its human rights obligations. Sometimes the challenges seem insurmountable, as in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs. But as human rights lawyers, it is incumbent upon us to continue advocating for enforcement of human rights protections and to give a voice to the millions of individuals who are now deprived of safe and legal abortion access."

Yana Pavlova

Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

"In early 2022, I had the opportunity to work on a contentious domestic violence trial in California state court through Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati's pro bono program. I was fortunate to collaborate with a skilled co-counsel and supportive internal team to develop litigation strategy and obtain the best possible results for our client. At trial, I examined witnesses and handled closing arguments.

Our team won the case, and the experience led to tremendous growth and confidence in my abilities as a lawyer in the early stages of my career. Most valuable to me was being able to provide client support through an arduous time. It was rewarding to observe the positive impact having an advocate can have on someone's life, especially for individuals who may not be able to afford quality legal services without the pro bono programs law firms offer. I will appreciate the lessons learned in my domestic violence trial for the rest of my career."

Andrea Maddox

Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel

"Keeping up with the news lately can often feel overwhelming and disheartening. But one of the things I love about being a lawyer is that, through my profession, I am able to actually do something about the things going on in the world that bother me. For example, I remember being shocked and angry after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and very moved by the widespread protests that followed. Not long after, my firm created a Racial Justice Initiative, which is dedicated to improving civil rights and access to justice for all Americans. I remember helplessly watching video of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. A few months later, I was working with an Afghan family to apply for asylum.

My experiences in pro bono have taught me that we as lawyers do have an ability to make a difference, in ways big and small, and it has also left me with a sense of responsibility to take action on the causes I care about. Further, pro bono work takes what can feel like abstract issues and makes them very real, by introducing me to people most affected by discrimination, persecution and injustice. I am consistently inspired by the people I am privileged to help, and the partner organizations who are champions of these issues. Not only have I learned to be a better lawyer through these relationships and my work on these cases, but I am motivated too, as a lawyer and also simply as a person."
--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

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