CU Attorneys Find Time for Pro Bono
When Aaron Young was still in law school, he realized many people did not have financial access to the legal help they needed.
"I felt it was ridiculous that attorneys out there in the real world found it okay to charge $250, $350, $400 an hour to get someone a divorce," Young said.
"I made a commitment that, yes, I have to be economically independent and earn a living. But I still want to give a certain amount back. When I got out [of school] I made it my goal to maintain that focus."
Today Young is in-house counsel for American Airlines Federal Credit Union in Fort Worth, Texas, and harnesses his desire to help others by making it a goal to do 50 to 60 hours a year of pro bono work.
One way Young helps is through the Kern County Bar Association, which sponsors a phone bank called LegalLine. On the second and third Wednesday of each month, attorneys staff the phones and answer such questions as, "Do I have to probate my mother's will?"
Recently, Young has also become involved in more case-specific work through the Dallas Bar Association and Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, organizations that strive to make it as easy as possible for attorneys to identify cases that need pro bono help.
"There was a divorce case yesterday," Young said. "It's an uncontested divorce and they're already agreed to a mutual order as to how they're going to share their child and other details.
"It's just a matter of providing the necessary forms and walking them through the process. All I have to do is handhold the client, take them to court, ask them the relevant questions and prove to the judge they've met residency and other requirements."
Many employees today are shouldering bigger workloads and striving to accomplish more in limited time. Is it difficult to find time for pro bono work?
"It's like all things in life-if it's a priority for you, you find time for it," Young said. "My wife and I have arranged a schedule where it's known that on the second and fourth Wednesday I'm on LegalLine. I won't be there for dinner. I'll be home late."
"I feel I really owe the community something and that's one thing I can do. We can't always write a check whenever we want to, but we can give time. Everybody has time. You just set a goal. The toughest struggle is to initially set that goal. If you don't make it, at least you tried."
Some attorneys may shy away from pro bono work because they worry clients will expect more than they should. But Young has found that his clients appreciate his efforts.
He said he believes the credit union also benefits from his pro bono work, at least indirectly. A pro bono client may not be eligible for AAFCU membership, but Young is more engaged and pleased with the fact his job allows him to do such work. If you want to encourage your in-house counsel to do pro bono work, he advised, simply tell them you expect it.
Young explained that attorneys can handle a wide range of cases. He said he can work outside his usual area of expertise as long as he prepares adequately. For example, for the divorce case, he reviewed the state's family law statutes.
Don Fenstermacher at New Mexico Educators Federal Credit Union is another in-house attorney who handles pro bono work. He said that in addition to his personal interest in helping people, both the state and local bar associations encourage it.
Fenstermacher estimated he puts in about 50 pro bono hours a year, which is in line with the goals of the state bar association.
"A lot of people think pro bono work means taking on a case and litigating it through," he said. "The kind of work I'm able to do involves providing insight and assistance with a piece of a problem."
Fenstermacher often offers his services at legal fairs, where people with legal issues can sit down with a lawyer for 10 to 30 minutes, describe their situation and get advice. He also tries to assist other lawyers doing pro bono work by helping them understand the financial world, bankruptcy or creditors' rights.
It can be difficult to find time for pro bono work, but an attorney can still make a meaningful difference in a person's life with a relatively brief interaction, he said. Often it's as simple as relieving a client's anxiety by defining the problem. The client then understands his or her rights and where to go for the next step. "In a limited conversation I can help them substantially without filing a case and taking them on as a long-term client," he said.
Fenstermacher said he can't take on long-term pro bono clients because as an in-house attorney he doesn't have malpractice insurance. And because NMEFCU is the largest credit union by membership in the state, he always makes sure to ask potential clients whether they owe the credit union money in order to avoid walking into a conflict of interest.
Does the credit union benefit from his pro bono work? Fenstermacher thinks so. He said he tries not to self-promote, but people know who he is and that he is employed by the credit union. He's seen as out in the community with other lawyers who are donating their time.
"It's part of the legal profession, part of informing yourself," he said.