The Pro Bono Program interviews Laura Klein, Department of Justice Pro Bono Program Manager
DCBPB: First, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to speak with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program today. Being the Department of Justice Pro Bono Program Manager keeps you busy. Can you tell us a little more about your position?
LK: As the Department of Justice Pro Bono Program (DOJ PBP) Manager, I run both the DOJ PBP and the Federal Government Pro Bono Program, which includes over 40 federal agencies, in the Executive Branch. I oversee our programs nationwide including our headquarters in DC. My duties include recruiting federal government attorneys to do pro bono work. I organize trainings and events and educational sessions, to encourage our attorneys to get involved. In addition to their substantive mentoring from the legal service agencies, I am also a source of support for them, which is a pretty big part of my job. I also work with the legal service organizations to develop opportunities that are appropriate for government attorneys.
DCBPB: That sounds like a job for more than one person!
LK: There are many days that it feels that way!
DCBPB: What did you do before you had this position?
LK: I have been in this position for twelve years and before that I was with the DOJ. I was a litigator and I also did policy work. Which I think really helps me in this job. I understand the pressures on the attorneys. I understand the limitations of what they can do, because that was me.
DCBPB: What types of pro bono matters are federal employees permitted to be involved in?
LK: Probably the best way to answer that is to first say what we are not allowed to be involved in, which includes, any matters in which the federal government has a direct and substantial interest. It’s actually in the criminal code, so we take that very seriously. For example, we cannot give legal advice on immigration matters, public benefits such as Medicare/Medicaid, SSI/SSDI, federal tax matters and in D.C. most criminal matters are off-limits to federal attorneys, because they are prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office. So, we have all of those issues off limits, but that leaves quite a few things that we can do. Most of our attorneys focus on family law, housing law, domestic violence cases, drafting wills, personal injury and consumer issues. Anything that is local law, and which doesn’t pose any kind of federal conflict tends to be fine.
DCBPB: What are the different ways that federal employees can participate in D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program clinics and programs?
LK: We do a lot with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. Federal government attorneys staff the Advice & Referral Clinic every month, in both locations, which makes the federal government the largest source of volunteers for that clinic. We have literally hundreds of our attorneys staffing that clinic every year. We also staff the Advocacy & Justice Clinic four times each year. We place approximately 40 cases every year, and so that’s a very big part of our program and I know that we keep you guys pretty busy, screening cases and providing mentoring to our volunteers.
We also helped start the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program/Bread for the City Wills Clinic and we are currently the sole source of volunteers for that Clinic. I work with the attorneys at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program and Bread for the City to set up the clinic dates and then I recruit the attorneys. It’s a point of pride for us that we helped start that clinic.
Our attorneys also volunteer at the Pro Se Plus Divorce and Custody clinics. So, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program is definitely our primary partners in terms of pro bono opportunities in D.C.
DCBPB: What kind of experience do federal employees need to undertake pro bono service?
LK: Well, I wouldn’t say that federal attorneys are any different than private sector attorneys in terms of what kind of experience they bring to the table. If they are licensed attorneys we want them to volunteer and we will provide whatever resources and support that they need to be successful. And, that will vary on a case by case basis. If they want to work at the Advice & Referral Clinic, no experience at all is necessary, as long as they are a member in good standing of a bar. Experience isn’t really the main requirement, it’s really the desire to put in the effort, because we’ll provide them with whatever training and support and mentoring they need.
DCBPB: What kind of reaction do you normally get initially from federal employees when you ask them about volunteering or that you are trying to recruit?
LK: There is definitely widespread interest in volunteering. I find that people often don’t know how to get involved and that if I show them where the opportunities are they are willing to give them a try. I recently did a presentation at an office that had never showed interest in volunteering before, and then more than half the office signed up to work at the Advice and Referral Clinic. Usually, it’s just a matter of providing the information and showing them how easy it is to get involved.
DCBPB: What kinds of resources are available to federal employees?
LK:There are many resources available through our program. Contacting me is one. The new national practice area of probono.net which just launched is another. It contains a wealth of information for people interested in doing pro bono work. Available volunteer opportunities are posted there as well as the pro bono policies of major federal agencies, answers to frequently asked questions about federal pro bono work, volunteer guides from across the county, and contact information for federal pro bono coordinators. Probono.net is also a substantive resource on various areas of law with concrete information for our volunteers to utilize when they are meeting with the people who are seeking advice at the various free legal clinics. It’s really a phenomenal resource and we’re very excited.
DCBPB: What about federal employees who are not licensed in the District? Are there still ways that they can serve?
LK: Absolutely. We are so fortunate in D.C. because we have D.C. Court of Appeals Rule 49 which allows federal employees to do pro bono work here regardless of where in the United States they are licensed. Most of our volunteers are not licensed in D.C. A lot of people come to work in D.C. from all over the country and they don’t change their bar license because they don’t have to do that in order to represent the federal government and Rule 49 allows all those people to do pro bono work . It is truly a key to the success of our program.
DCBPB: What’s the one thing you wish all federal employees knew about doing pro bono in D.C.?
LK: I wish they all knew how easy it is to get involved. People just don’t realize the variety of opportunities that are out there. They don’t understand that we can accommodate whatever their schedule is and have all sorts of resources available to do the pro bono work so when you’re getting involved you’re not on your own.
To learn more about pro bono volunteer opportunities for government attorneys visit probono.net then email Laura Klein at firstname.lastname@example.org.