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Lessons and Reflections: D.C. Bar Leadership Academy Pro Bono Day of Service

November 9, 2017

Participants of the D.C. Bar Leadership Academy spend half a day gaining hands-on experience volunteering at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Advice & Referral Clinic, which helps low-income District of Columbia residents navigate the legal system. In the November issue of Washington Lawyer, Bar members offered their reflections on their volunteering experience. Below, Leadership Academy graduates Charles McCullough and Melanie Bates share their own experiences serving on the Advice & Referral Clinic.

Photo by Lewis Rayford Charles McCullough

When I think about the many blessings and people that made my legal career possible, I can’t help but want to give my talent and time through pro bono work. For me, being a lawyer is about having the power to help the people around me, yet there are days when you look up to realize the particular case you’re working on is far afield from your passion. More than the joy that comes from calming the fears a client has while facing a complex legal system or the lawyers of a large corporation, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center gave me the opportunity to practice my passion while practicing law.

I spent my time helping pro bono clients with consumer law issues because as vice chair of a national credit union, I knew that large banks were often too heavy-handed in their collection practices. The two clients I worked with wanted a fair deal, and that’s what I got them. My first client had the legal standing to not pay a dime, but he thought it was fair to pay exactly what he owed without the unwarranted fees. That’s exactly what we did because it was fair to the bank and to the customer. My second client also wanted to pay the credit debt she owed. However, opposing counsel insisted upon an amount that would leave her without money for food to eat or gas to get to work. She needed a deal with heart, and that’s what we got. Instead of the legal system shouting them down, the Pro Bono Center gave me the power to help my clients be heard.

Though I was only obligated for that morning, I kept up with my clients through Christmas cards and check-ins. That’s the least I owed them for the experience they gave me.

I wish more of my colleagues could have experienced what I did. Perhaps then they would better understand what I already know: to reach a fair deal, one should start by listening with understanding instead of talking with legalese.

Courtesy of Capitol Media USAMelanie E. Bates

I was thrilled to learn of the opportunity to volunteer with the Advice & Referral Clinic. The Clinic is designed to provide brief services by offering pro se individuals the opportunity to discuss with attorney volunteers matters governed by D.C. or federal law. The clients are indigent and have oftentimes exhausted all other means of acquiring legal assistance, so they are tremendously grateful for our services.

Volunteering at the Clinic is a great way for young lawyers to obtain substantive, first-hand experience prior to taking on more extensive pro bono representation. In addition to serving as part of my participation in the 2014 John Payton Leadership Academy, I have volunteered on countless other occasions. These experiences have provided me with an invaluable opportunity to hone my skills and learn about a variety of practices areas.

As lawyers, we should always keep in mind that we are privileged to have a license to practice law. A large portion of District residents are living in poverty. D.C. has the highest concentration of lawyers in the nation. It should therefore be our duty to give back to those who need us. I encourage each of you to dedicate one Saturday to volunteering at the Clinic—I assure you it will be an experience you will never forget.