Lee Ann Watson: ‘We Have the Time to Be Zealous Advocates’

October 15, 2019

DC Bar Pro Bono Center Volunteer of the Week Header

By John Murph

Lee Ann Watson

Lee Ann Watson retired two years ago from a long career as a litigator. For 20 years she worked as a litigation partner in a large Chicago law firm, handling complex commercial matters. She then became a federal government attorney, working first at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) before serving at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for 15 years. Now, she lends her legal expertise to the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic. In this second DC Pro Bono Week installment celebrating volunteer attorneys, Watson explains how the Pro Bono Center prepares its attorney volunteers and why retired lawyers make some of the best pro bono advocates. 

Why did you decide to transition from private practice to the federal government?
Throughout my career, I tried not to become a specific niche expert because I like variety, but I was a litigator by trade. I was in private practice for 20 years, mostly handling securities, antitrust, and complex commercial litigation, when I had a midlife crisis and realized that I wanted to both be professionally fulfilled and give back to others using my legal skills. 

I had originally thought about going into the federal government when I got out of law school, but I passed it up because I was tired of being poor. When my midlife crisis struck, however, I knew it was the right time to start giving back by working in the government. I served four years as an assistant counsel in the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility, where we investigated misconduct by U.S. attorneys and other senior officials in Justice. Then I spent 15 years at FERC. I served in various enforcement capacities at FERC in the Office of Enforcement, including as deputy director of the Office of Enforcement, where I could again use my litigation skills in prosecuting the likes of Enron. 

How did you start volunteering with the Pro Bono Center?
I retired at the very end of 2017, and by January 2018 I was already volunteering on pro bono matters. One of the first things I did when I retired was call the Pro Bono Center and ask how I could help. I thought that they might need volunteers to help in well-publicized subject areas like immigration, but their Advocacy & Justice Clinic actually needed attorneys to represent clients in Social Security disability cases, an area of the law that affects so many disabled D.C. residents, including those who are unable to work and rely on public benefits for their basic necessities.  

I was upfront that I didn’t have any experience in Social Security disability cases, but the Pro Bono Center said, “No problem. We’ll teach you.” They have been terrific in providing me education in this field. You have to be motivated and learn a lot by yourself, but the Center has been very, very helpful in making online materials and mentors available. 

What is it like representing clients in disability cases?
The Pro Bono Center usually assigns me cases going to hearing, so it gives me an opportunity to once again flex my litigation skills. My cases typically involve clients who have been denied Social Security disability benefits at the regional level; they are on appeal when I get them. I’m assigned an expert mentor for each case I take. For instance, an attorney from Whitman-Walker Health is my mentor on a current case. When I write a brief, I run it by her to make sure there isn’t a nuance in the law that I’m not familiar with. 

These are challenging cases, and there are reasons why they were denied before and are being appealed. The most difficult cases are the ones that involve mental health disabilities. As you can imagine, if someone has a broken back or can’t walk, then the situation is black and white as to what the client can or can’t do in terms of holding a job. But when it’s a mental health issue — such as if a client was previously homeless and traumatized or suffering from a recognized disorder like PTSD — being able to check the boxes that qualify someone as disabled is much harder. A lot of these areas are gray, and you really have to advocate for your client. 

The process is so rewarding, though. The clients are usually so grateful that someone is working on their case, and I enjoy working with them. I like to manage their expectations. If we do win, it’s usually what would seem like a pittance to many people; the disability benefit is anything but a financial windfall. It’s not a lot of money, but it helps my pro bono clients survive. 

What advantages do retired lawyers bring to pro bono cases?
For recent law school graduates, doing pro bono work is seen as an educational way for young attorneys to get firsthand experience early on, and law firms are seen as providing a service to the community. But at the time that I graduated from law school, large firms were not as active in promoting pro bono work for young attorneys. My firm really didn’t do that much pro bono work until about 10 or 15 years after I’d started, and by then I was a partner and mentoring a lot of associates. 

I think retired attorneys can be better at pro bono in some instances because we bring a lifetime of experience and have the time to be zealous advocates. By the time you reach my age as a retired lawyer, you should know how to write a persuasive brief pretty quickly. And you’re better at it, frankly, than someone who is just two years out of law school. You know what judges do and don’t want to see or hear. 

Retired attorneys also have the time to prepare documents like detailed medical affidavits with care. For instance, to fully understand what one of my client’s psychiatrists was saying, I read a text dealing with the mental illness. Reading it really helped me understand my client a lot better, because I understood what he was going through. It also helped me ask better questions of his doctors, who are usually very busy. I’ve learned a lot, and I enjoy learning new things. 

What advice would you give to younger attorneys new to pro bono work?
Be persistent. It’ll serve you well in your career, and its key to representing pro bono clients in challenging cases. Sometimes I think younger people who haven’t been practicing law very long are too willing to simply accept a given answer. In the context of disability cases, for example, you may need information from a doctor at a clinic that moves a high volume of patients through so quickly that they don’t really want to deal with lawyers. Newer attorneys may just accept what the clinic or hospital sends in the first instance or take a “no” from a doctor when she says she is too busy to meet with you. If the doctor doesn’t return a call or email, they give up. 

But as a lawyer, you have to be a pest to zealously represent your client. You have to be persistent to understand all the facts of your client’s condition and gather all necessary records. I get on the phone and track down the doctor’s assistants until I get them to call me back. I will set up a time and offer to meet them in their clinic and show them how they can help our mutual client. I think being persistent is the way to succeed in these cases, and retired lawyers can and will engage in the effort it sometimes takes. And it’s all in the very gratifying service of helping people who really need it. Who doesn’t enjoy that? 

Interested in taking on a disability case? Register now for the Pro Bono Center’s Social Security Disability Benefits (SSI/SSDI) and Interim Disability Assistance (IDA) training on November 6. Also, check out the list of upcoming pro bono trainings dedicated to public benefits issues.