According to Wikipedia, pro bono publico (English: for the public good; usually shortened to pro bono) is a Latin phrase for professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service. While this may serve as a workable definition of what pro bono is, it does not begin to describe the impact of what pro bono does. Pro Bono done well is more than just a professional obligation to give back, it is a genuine desire to use one’s legal skills to make a difference, something that lies at the very essence of what Progressive Lawyer is all about.
This week we shine the Pro Bono spotlight on The Pro Bono Project of New Orleans, Louisiana. We spoke with executive director Rachel Piercey about what the Project does and how it does it in this very unique city that is still working on picking up the pieces from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. It is important to understand that at the height of The Pro Bono Project’s success, Hurricane Katrina badly damaged its infrastructure. Determined as ever, Ms Piercey rebuilt and expanded The Project to better serve the varied needs of a growing and diverse population. She re-shaped the organization so that local and out of- state volunteer attorneys and law students are now vital elements of The Pro Bono Project’s infrastructure providing services to the community. It is this resilience and determination that make both the Pro Bono Project and Ms Piercey herself such a wonderful way to kick off our Pro Bono spotlight feature.
Progressive Lawyer: Please introduce yourself and describe your role in The Pro Bono Project.
Rachel Piercey: My name is Rachel Piercey. As the Executive Director of The Pro Bono Project, I am responsible for the overall development, coordination and administration of the organization.
PL: Why was your organization started? What issues does it confront?
RP: The Pro Bono Project was originally sponsored by the Louisiana Bar Foundation in 1986 to assist with the ever-increasing need for civil legal services to the poor and underserved in the New Orleans area by using the legal skill of members of the private bar. The private bar’s enthusiastic response spurred the Foundation’s
Pro Bono Project from a mere concept to a full-service, viable working resource in our community. Five years later, in 1991, the organization was strong enough to separately incorporate into its own 501 (C) (3) stand along non-profit agency. The Project accepts cases by application for a range of civil legal matters, including family law (divorce, child custody, adoptions, child support, visitation, name changes and interdictions), estate planning and successions (probate), public benefits, landlord/tenant, home ownership, tax, consumer complaints and bankruptcy, elder law, and services for neglected and abused children. We work with other legal and social service agencies in the community to help resolve civil legal issues for clients that are at or below the federal poverty income level.
PL: What services does your organization offer? Who are its primary clients/audience?
RP: The Project offers clinics, information and referral services, short counsel and advice, and full representation. Clients must be low-income and live or have a civil legal case in the greater metropolitan area. The organization also provides client education seminars on a variety of topics of law upon request. The legal community is another major client for us as we recruit from the private bar to help them fulfill their professional responsibility to perform public service. We provide CLE’s throughout the year to help train our volunteers in our areas of greatest need as well as mentor and provide whatever support services are helpful in resolving a client’s case.
PL: How do you utilize the law to further The Pro Bono Project’s goals?
RP: We are a mission based organization founded to provide access to those without the means to obtain private counsel on their own. Clients come to us with a civil legal problem in need of a resolution and we facilitate the process of connecting them to a lawyer.
PL: What role do legal professionals play in your organization?
RP: The Project has a small staff including three attorneys and a paralegal to help administer the organization. The staff attorneys primarily serve as a resource to the private bar in helping to engage and support them in the process. The bulk of the representation is done by volunteer attorneys and, when appropriate, other legal professionals. Thanks to the in-kind services of the private bar, we are able to handle about 1500 cases a year.
PL: Do you offer any internships or volunteer opportunities?
RP: Yes, we were the first official intern placement provider for Tulane Law School when their community service requirement was added in the 1990’s. Tulane was the first law school in the country to do so and we continue to be available to their students as well as Loyola Law, the other local law school in our community. We also host law students from schools around the country who come here to intern during their spring, summer and winter breaks.
The whole concept of our organization is around the volunteer structure. We recruit, we train, and we support and mentor allowing us to expand our capacity to help more clients.
PL: How would a legal professional pursue a career with your organization? What advice would you give to a law student or legal professional who would be interested in practicing this type of community law?
RP: Volunteering with us is a good place to begin. The volunteer is exposed to a variety of topics and areas of law usually far greater than experienced in a classroom or law firm. Doing this work provides the volunteer with an opportunity to add and build upon their skills, obtain some practical experience handling their own case while still under supervision. Working in public service organizations helps to broaden one’s view of the world as one is exposed to different economic as well as ethnic communities and numerous areas of law typically outside of one’s practice. If you are an expert in a particular area of law that we handle, the volunteer can teach and mentor others interesting in helping, also allowing us to expand capacity. We hear lawyers tell us all the time, that the experience connected them to and helps remind them why they went to Law School in the first place. We hear countless affirmations from our volunteers who find the work very rewarding and provides them with a sense of contributing to their community’s well-being.
PL: How do you balance your work life with your private life?
RP: Balance is key and it’s a challenge as the work is endless. The need is far greater than available resources so it is important that you learn to make time for other parts of your life that feed you as well trying to avoid burnout. Personally, for me, I am a yoga practictioner as well as a yoga teacher helping me to step away from the constant administrative details in running an organization. Doing yoga pulls me out of my head and gives me the space for me to renew and re affirm who I am, apart from the title and daily responsibilities.
PL: Outside of your organization, what issues are you particularly passionate about?
RP: Am passionate about appreciating the beauty of our diverse culture, and experiences that support lifelong learning, helping me to learn more about myself as well as others, giving me a wider lens to view and experience the world.
PL: What do you think the role of law and lawyers should be in society?
RP: I am fortunate to be working daily in an environment that affirms the role of law and its lawyers every day. Our volunteers work with us provide ongoing renewal of the power of law and the benefits of lawyers in our society as our clients lives are mended along the way in large part to resolving the impasse they find themselves in. Often times, The Pro Bono Project is the last step on the train for many of our clients with a civil legal problem in need of a resolution and have nowhere else to turn.
PL: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to Progressive Lawyer.
For more information on The Pro Bono Project, please consult their website at http://probono-no.org/
If you would like to be featured on Progressive Lawyer’s Pro Bono Spotlight, please do not hesitate to contact us!
Until next week!