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Doing Good Together

Thursday, November 20, 2014

-Story and photos by Lori Craig

Attorneys from both sides of the pro bono/legal aid working relationship spoke to USC Gould students recently. They discussed the dynamics of working together and the transferable skills accessible on either side of the aisle.

Phong S. Wong and Christopher Rivas
Phong S. Wong and Christopher Rivas

Panelists included attorneys from legal services who initiate cases and the law firm attorneys who assist on those cases pro bono.

“Pro bono gives attorneys an opportunity to try different cases and get different experiences, including court experience,” said Phong S. Wong, pro bono director at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

Wong coordinates LAFLA’s pro bono projects and oversees recruitment and hiring of volunteers like Christopher Rivas, an associate at Reed Smith who has worked on a number of cases for LAFLA.

“Pro bono is an important part of legal services because a lot of times, we don’t have enough resources to meet the needs of our communities,” Wong said. “Once our staff attorneys’ plates are full, we reach out to pro bono attorneys to help take on these substantial cases to help additional folks out in the community.”

From there, Rivas said, a firm’s pro bono coordinator will help match interested and qualified attorneys with the case. Sometimes a firm will establish an ongoing partnership with an agency around a particular cause. For example, Rivas and other attorneys at Reed Smith work closely with LAFLA on cases that involve helping battered women obtain visas, he said.

“You form a relationship with the organization, and depending on the type of case, that’s going to change,” Rivas said. “If it’s a type of case I don’t typically do, I’ll defer to my legal aid liaison for the case. And as you get better at it, you can take more of the case on yourself.

“The inverse is that, sometimes, an organization will have a case that’s just huge or incredibly tricky — for example, it might have some corporate securities component, wire fraud or some weird thing that they don’t typically deal with — and then they’ll find an attorney in your firm that does know that area. So then the relationship kind of flips a little bit and the person at the firm might be relied on more heavily.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Shannon Grube, staff attorney at the Alliance for Children’s Rights, and Megan Rivetti, associate at Greenberg Glusker. Rivetti and the Alliance secured the right to federal foster care funding for a seven-year-old girl who will now be eligible for assistance until she’s 18 or 21. Greenberg Glusker attorneys have partnered with the Alliance on several other cases for the same family to address other needs.

Cristin Zeisler and David Lash
 Cristin Zeisler and David Lash

Two panelists spoke about their experiences within both legal aid and as pro bono coordinators with a firm: David Lash, counsel with O’Melveny & Myers and former executive director of Bet Tzedek; and Cristin Zeisler, Holocaust services attorney at Bet Tzedek and former partner and director of pro bono at Mannatt, Phelps & Phillips.

“This is a very symbiotic relationship,” Lash said. “Pro bono lawyers and pro bono programs in law firms, in order for us to be effective advocates in the delivery of legal services to the poor, are incredibly dependent upon the legal aid organizations. We will only go as far as their shoulders will carry us. We rely heavily on the legal aid organizations for referrals, and that means we’re relying on them to screen the cases for merit, for eligibility, to assess the issues and to communicate to us effectively what the issues are, [and] to be able to mentor and supervise our lawyers. Legal aid organizations need us to do more; we need them to basically do anything.”

The panel was sponsored by USC Gould’s Career Services Office, the Public Interest Law Foundation, and USC Graduate Student Government in celebration and recognition of National Pro Bono Week. Special mention was made of the State Bar of California’s Campaign for Justice as USC Gould is a pilot school for bringing awareness of pro bono to law students.
 

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