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Washington Lawyer

Making Better Lawyers and a Better Community

From Washington Lawyer, March 2015

By Barbara Butterworth

Pro Bono Effect LogoThe economic downturn caused disastrous cutbacks for the legal services providers in our community, bringing the unmet civil legal needs of the poorest to crisis levels. Although Finnegan, my District of Columbia-based intellectual property (IP) law firm, was already supporting a number of pro bono initiatives, including work with veterans, applicants for asylum, and representation of indigent criminal defendants, we knew we needed to do more to help the most vulnerable.

Working with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic proved an ideal vehicle for Finnegan to contribute. The clinic provides full representation in housing, family, public benefits, personal injury defense, and consumer law matters, placing about 350 cases per year. The clinic accepts referrals from local legal services providers, as well as from the Pro Bono Program’s court-based resource centers and Saturday Advice & Referral Clinic. Once a case is screened, the client is matched with an attorney volunteer from the private bar or a government agency.

Although Finnegan had limited previous exposure to the clinic’s areas of focus in the District, we wanted to make sure that we could provide exemplary representation to our pro bono clients. Our concerns were quickly allayed thanks to the assistance of the clinic’s subject matter expert mentors, as well as back up from the Pro Bono Program’s knowledgeable and flexible staff. In short, the clinic provides the tools our attorneys need to provide excellent representation.

One might think that a highly specialized IP firm might shy away from this type of front-line pro bono work. But at Finnegan, the opposite is true. Our attorneys pride themselves on taking on tough cases, as evidenced by the firm’s reputation as a zealous advocate for criminal defendants in D.C. Superior Court. We had already learned from our other ongoing pro bono work that legal representation for the under- or unrepresented can make all the difference even when the attorney’s practice is entirely unrelated. With the Pro Bono Program as a resource, we made the transition to new areas of practice quite effectively.

Finnegan has been proud to partner with the Pro Bono Program to handle more than 75 cases, which have been some of the most rewarding for our firm. Saving clients from homelessness, reuniting parents and children, and helping clients obtain the disability benefits they deserve are wins that speak for themselves. But we’re not naïve. Our clients face many challenges in addition to the legal problem we have been asked to solve. Some of our clients have significant physical or mental health issues, and others bear a mistrust of the “system,” finding it difficult to help us help them. But we understand that for these reasons, our clients need our help more than ever.

The clinic’s Social Security Disability cases demonstrate this perfectly. In our experience, many of our clients have great difficulty obtaining the benefits to which they’re entitled. By the time they reach us, they’ve been through the initial application process and seek to appeal a denial of benefits. The application process is onerous, and, without assistance or guidance, many of our clients fail even to create a basic record of their disability. Impermanent living situations, communication barriers, and the day-to-day trappings of poverty such as inadequate transportation often add to the difficulty.

One client appealing a denial of Social Security benefits couldn’t recall any of the dates or places she had received treatment for several years because she lacked a consistent medical provider. After an extensive investigation that filled some of the treatment gaps, and a hearing at which our client’s testimony and that of other witnesses completed the other gaps, we were able to convince the Social Security Administration our client was entitled to benefits. But what if our client had to appeal her initial denial of benefits without the assistance of counsel? The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program has found that more than 90 percent of their disability clients prevail once they have representation.

Our client’s disability appeal had a happy ending. Though at first, our client didn’t even understand that she had won. After we explained it to her, she had trouble believing that such a good thing had happened to her. For the first time since she became ill she would have a steady income. The income would, in turn, create new opportunities for her in housing, basic nutrition, and health care. But the benefits meant something to our client on a deeper level as well. She would no longer have to rely on the charity of her family and local shelters, a situation which deeply shamed her. She felt for the first time in years that she had dignity as a deserving member of society.

Our attorneys benefit from participation in the clinic and other pro bono activities through the tremendous experience it affords them in all aspects of litigation, including participating in actual court proceedings—something that many firm lawyers might not experience until later in their careers. That professional development is one reason why pro bono is a critical part of Finnegan’s litigation mentoring program.

But despite those benefits both to the firm and its attorneys, no attorney working with me has ever mentioned these rewards first. Instead, all have remarked in one way or another on the sheer satisfaction of using their training, time, and talent to help another human being.

Barbara Butterworth is counsel for the Litigation Mentor Program at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP and a member of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Committee.