By Kristen Sonday

Paladin Co-Founder Kristen Sonday asks DOJ Pro Bono Program Manager Laura Klein about the value of pro bono work for both attorneys and clients, the government’s pro bono program and more.

Tell us about the Federal Government’s pro bono program? How did it get started?

As early as the 1970’s, efforts have been made to encourage federal government attorneys to engage in pro bono work. Perceived conflicts of interest and other obstacles have been slowly removed or refined by each Administration to facilitate attorneys’ involvement in this professional duty. In 1996, this process culminated in the issuance of Executive Order 12988, which directed federal agencies to develop policies which would encourage their employees to perform volunteer work. The Order specifically noted pro bono work by federal government attorneys and designated the Attorney General to coordinate the government-wide effort. The Department of Justice (DOJ) issued its pro bono policy and set up a Pro Bono Program. It then invited all other federal agencies to join the Interagency Pro Bono Working Group, a committee which could assist agencies in drafting their own policies and in complying with the Order as well.

The Interagency Pro Bono Working Group continues to exist today, now serving as the steering committee for the Federal Government Pro Bono Program. The Program has over 50 participating agencies. Over the years, the Program has expanded beyond its original efforts in Washington, DC, and currently has branches in Chicago, New York City, Denver, Dallas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. New branches are also in development. In each of these locations, the Program promotes pro bono opportunities to the federal government attorneys and legal staff and provides support to those who volunteer.

The most exciting recent development is the Program’s transition to the newly re-established DOJ Office for Access to Justice (ATJ). The Program fits within ATJ’s mission, specifically ATJ’s goal to increase access to legal assistance for all. Being a part of this office provides the Program with new resources and an elevated profile to support its growth and goals.

What is your role with respect to the program?

I am the Department of Justice Pro Bono Program Manager and the Chair of the Federal Government Pro Bono Program. Lara Eilhardt, the DOJ Pro Bono Program Counsel, and I coordinate the Program by working with legal services organizations around the country to bring appropriate pro bono opportunities to federal government attorneys. We work closely with agency pro bono coordinators to publicize opportunities, recruit volunteers, and support those volunteers when they provide pro bono assistance. We also address policy and technical issues which can make volunteering easier for federal attorneys. Federal government attorneys face unique challenges when engaging in pro bono work, such as statutory conflicts of interest. When government attorneys volunteer, they must do so on their own time and with their own resources except in limited circumstances. Lara and I work to find opportunities where our volunteers can make a difference and have rewarding experiences within these limitations.

Why is it important for attorneys to take on pro bono work?

The most important reason why attorneys should do pro bono work is the need. The need for pro bono legal assistance in our country cannot be overstated. The numbers are shocking. The Legal Services Corporation’s most recent report announced that 92% of low-income Americans’ legal needs go unmet every year. Without access to legal information and assistance, people may be evicted from their homes, lose custody of their children, face domestic violence, experience harassment by creditors, and more, all without knowing their rights. Pro bono attorneys play an important role in providing help to those in need. Legal services organizations do not have the resources to do it alone.

Beyond the need, pro bono work makes us better attorneys. Pro bono work allows us to expand our skills and knowledge. We often become very specialized early in our legal careers, particularly those of us who work for the government. Pro bono work offers the opportunity to expand our expertise. It also introduces us to other people in our legal community, such as legal services attorneys, volunteers who work for other employers, and court personnel.

And, of course, the clients. Our attorneys have one large client, the federal government. While that work is a rewarding public service itself, it does not always offer the attorney-client experience or the unique satisfaction of helping an individual. Pro bono work gives attorneys that personal and genuine experience of using your skills to help someone solve a problem.

What types of pro bono work are available to government attorneys, and what areas are most popular?

Federal government attorneys can engage in many types of pro bono work. Our biggest restriction is conflicts of interest: We cannot engage in any pro bono activity in which the federal government has a direct and substantial interest. While that rules out many common areas of pro bono work, such as immigration, Social Security, and veterans’ benefits, we can get involved in so many areas of need. Our volunteers handle housing, family law, domestic violence, employment, estate planning and more. We do everything from litigation to brief advice clinics to drafting wills to transactional work.

Another issue that limits our pro bono engagement is the fact that, when we volunteer, we do so in our individual capacities, not our official capacities. When helping a pro bono client, we must do so on our own time and with our own resources except in limited circumstances. We therefore look for opportunities which are generally outside of business hours and where the legal services organization can provide support, such as training, mentoring and use of certain resources. Many federal agencies have policies which allow for excused absence for pro bono court appearances, which cannot be accomplished outside of business hours, and for use of agency resources which have a negligible expense.

Even with these constraints, federal government attorneys are making an impact around the country. We handle eviction cases in Washington, DC, housing conditions cases in New York City, and adoption cases in Los Angeles. We draft wills in San Francisco, answer employment questions on a hotline in Chicago, and more. Whatever our attorneys’ interests and schedules, there are opportunities for them to participate.

What are some pro bono trends you’re seeing at the moment?

The development of remote legal services and pro bono opportunities during the pandemic has made it easier for attorneys to volunteer and for some clients to access assistance, so I think that is a trend which will continue in some form. This is a complicated issue, however, because remote services are not always easier for pro bono clients. If a client lacks access to technology, they should not be shut out of services. The role of technology continues to evolve. During the pandemic, courts held hearings remotely and made it very easy for pro bono volunteers to represent clients. Many courts now have returned to in-person evidentiary hearings, although some have kept status conferences and other appearances remote. Similarly, many pro bono clinics became remote during the pandemic and have remained that way, but others are now returning to in-person services to be sure clients have access even without technology. As the courts and legal services organizations experiment and explore these options, we will continue to see a mix of in-person and remote pro bono opportunities.

What is your long-term vision for the federal pro bono program?

Our goal is to engage as many federal government attorneys as possible in pro bono work all over the country. With that as our guide, we hope to establish more branches of our Program in more cities across the country. While we always have made ourselves available to support any of our attorneys across the country, we have been limited in the depth of that support where we don’t have an existing branch. By expanding our connections with legal services organizations in new cities, we will be able to bring appropriate opportunities and our network of support to the federal government attorneys in those cities.

Do you have any favorite or especially memorable pro bono stories?

My favorite pro bono story is about Professor Laurence Tribe. When the DOJ Office for Access to Justice was first launched in 2010, Professor Tribe was appointed to lead it. I invited him to join a group of DOJ attorneys volunteering at the DC Bar Pro Bono Center’s Advice & Referral Clinic on a Saturday and he eagerly accepted. At the clinic, he met a gentleman who needed advice about his mother’s will. Professor Tribe told the man that he needed to do some research before responding. The man looked at him suspiciously and said, “Aren’t you a lawyer?” I was mortified because I thought Professor Tribe might be offended, but he took it in stride and assured the client that he was indeed a lawyer. He found a computer, researched the issue and then returned to the client with the information. I love this story because it shows that you can be a leading constitutional lawyer in the country and still be faced with a question that stumps you at a legal clinic. Volunteers should never feel bad when they don’t know the answer. That’s why we have training and mentoring resources available to support volunteers. And the best part is that Professor Tribe enjoyed his experience at the clinic so much that he talked about it in an interview with the New York Times, even the part about his skeptical client!

What advice do you have for folks just starting out with pro bono?

Go for it! Many attorneys are hesitant to get involved because they worry about lacking expertise in poverty law issues or about taking on more than they can handle with their busy workloads. The Federal Government Pro Bono Program can help new volunteers navigate both of these concerns. We screen organizations to be sure that they offer training and mentoring to volunteers. We also look for a wide variety of pro bono opportunities, with short or long-term commitments and which avoid taking time during business hours. Our goal is for volunteers to have a successful and rewarding experience. Let us help you to help others!

Kristen Sonday is co-chair of the Legal Services Corporation’s Emerging Leaders Council and co-founder of Paladin.

Laura Klein is Pro Bono Program Manager for the U.S. Department of Justice and Chair of the Federal Government Pro Bono Program.


A Conversation with Laura Klein was originally published in Justice Rising on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.