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Washington Lawyer

The Pro Bono Effect: Paying It Forward Where I live

From Washington Lawyer, January 2014

By Melinda F. Levitt

I am a partner at a major law firm with a busy litigation practice dealing with clients facing difficult class action problems or addressing thorny federal government agency investigations. For the past 10 years, however, I also have handled a variety of pro bono child custody cases through the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic.

Child custody cases are some of the most challenging, and lawyers handling these cases correctly describe them as heart-wrenching. Contested custody matters do not typically come to us “clean,” with two parents prepared to consult and compromise rationally and calmly for the benefit of their children. The cases I handle frequently involve warring biological parents and young children who just need to be loved. Oftentimes, while waiting in court for a status conference or an evidentiary hearing on one of these cases, I hear similar cases being called—with all the same problems as mine, but with very wealthy, highly educated parents employing sophisticated counsel. Trust me, these are equal opportunity cases where money or education, or lack thereof, has nothing to do with the level of bad behavior, pettiness, and emotional games that get played out.

So, why do I take these pro bono cases? To me, the reasons are simple.

First, I believe deep in my heart that lawyers should and must take pro bono work as a matter of duty and conscience. But how can a fulltime practicing lawyer meet that duty? I have benefitted from the able assistance of a number of firm associates as well as staff and clinic mentors at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. Indeed, both the Pro Bono Program staff and case-assigned mentors provide an extremely valuable resource to attorneys handling pro bono cases. I can turn to them during crunch times to discuss case strategy or various options for possible resolution.

Second, I take child custody cases in particular because they are harder. Without a lawyer putting in the time and effort to steer them through the difficult legal process, most parents, and ultimately their children, would not stand a good chance for a successful outcome. Some types of matters are better suited to be handled on a pro se basis (although as lawyers we like to flatter ourselves that without us the system would come crashing down). But, when it comes to children and who gets to be with them, hug them good night, cheer them on at a school event, or just spend time talking and laughing with them, emotions run so high and the issues can be so complicated that pro se representation is not realistic. There are those who prefer different types of pro bono matters; some are very high profile—for example, housing discrimination (yes, it still goes on) or class action toxic tort litigation (remember Erin Brockovich? That was a pro bono matter). I commend those lawyers and the work that they do. However, for myself, I prefer doing the “small” cases for people here in the District of Columbia. This is where I live. This is where I work. And each one of these people is my neighbor, even if we do not live in close proximity. At least, that’s how I feel about it.

Third, I take these cases because it changes people’s lives for the better, no matter how ugly the immediate surrounding circumstances. Several years ago, we represented a mother whose little girl kept saying that her father hit her and that she did not want to be with him. There was, however, no actual hard proof of abuse other than what the little girl said. After months of trying, there came a day when the father finally admitted in open court that, yes, he had hit his child with the metal end of his belt. Terrible. Awful. The judge stepped in to ensure that protective measures were put in place to prevent the father from hitting that little girl again. That was a good day. It was also a good day when a father we represented in another case sent me pictures of him and his daughter celebrating Christmas together for the first time in years after we fought for the visitation that had been denied him for so long. People’s lives were truly changed.

Fourth, I take these cases because they have a constitutional dimension. As the U.S. Supreme Court has held, and the D.C. Courts have affirmed: “[N]atural parents have a ‘fundamental liberty interest . . . in the care, custody, and management of their child[ren]’ and they do not lose their constitutionally protected interest in influencing their child’s future ‘simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their children.’”[1] That is weighty stuff, and, in my view, worthy of recognition and enforcement so that only truly egregious cases of neglect and abuse are allowed to tear a parent and child apart. 

Finally, I take these cases in silent tribute to my own parents, who certainly were not perfect people or parents. They had their issues with one another. However, throughout my entire childhood, as far as I can recall, a day did not go by that I did not either speak to or see my father no matter how angry my mother may have been with him. It was a given with both of them that that is how things would be, and they worked to make it happen. I was never a pawn in their relationship. I was their daughter, and they loved me together. Every day. All day.

As I told people later in life, their marriage may have broken down, but we never stopped being a family. That was an incredible gift that they gave me, and I hope that in taking the difficult and heart-wrenching custody cases, I can help other parents come to see that that kind of a gift to a child is invaluable and will shine and sparkle every day for the rest of that child’s life. I may not be able to convince every parent, or really get them
to change, but at least I will have tried to pay forward the good blessings that I received from my parents as I fulfill my duty as a lawyer.

Melinda F. Levitt is a partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, where she is a member of the firm’s antitrust, privacy, security and information management, and international practices. In addition to organizing her firm’s participation in the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic, Levitt personally litigates and supervises many pro bono cases.

[1] In re K.D., 26 A.3d 772, 778, n.7 (D.C. 2011).

Get Involved
The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic partners with law firms and government agencies to provide full representation to income-qualified individuals in family law, housing, public benefits, consumer, and personal injury cases. For information on how your firm can get involved, contact Pro Bono Program Managing Attorney Lise Adams at [email protected].