Public Spirit: Carey Nuttal Injects Humor As Strategy For Running a Successful Pro Bono Clinic

By District of Columbia Bar

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Carey Nuttal
Carey Nuttal holds his daughter in front of the Superior Court of DC.


Public Spirit derived from Public Spirited: 


pub·lic-spir·it·ed (pblk-spr-td)


    adj. Motivated by or exhibiting devotion to the public welfare.

Carey Nuttall is a frequent volunteer in the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Pro Se Plus Divorce and Custody clinics. The Pro Bono Program recently sat down with Carrey to ask him about his experience.

DCBPB: When and how did you first get involved with the Pro Bono Program’s Pro Se Divorce and Child Custody Clinics—and what brings you back year after year?

CN:  I think it was about six years ago when I became aware of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program through our firms’ pro bono partner and coordinator. I was looking for pro bono opportunities, something with some regularity that didn’t involve litigation because I didn’t have the skill set for it. Among the things we talked about were the Pro Bono Program’s Pro Se Plus clinics which really interested me. I completed the training the Pro Bono Program offers and started volunteering in the clinic shortly afterwards.

I started my career as an attorney at FDA because, among other reasons, public service did and still does interest me. I think one of the things I appreciate most about what I do for pro bono is the change of pace. There’s what I do on a daily basis in terms of regulatory counseling and advising people who are in one way or another regulated by the FDA, and then there’s my pro bono work which allows me to flex a different kind of mental muscle and to be involved in something different from my day to day routine.

DCBPBP:  Some volunteers prefer to stay away from family law matters.  Why do you think it’s important to do pro bono work in the area of family law?

CN:  To me, family law was something that, even though it isn’t part of my daily practice, tends to affect many families. We all know people who are getting divorced or are having child custody issues; I myself had people coming to me for advice as an attorney, and I didn’t know anything about it. It was interesting to me because it is so commonplace.

People need to represent themselves in family law matters for a variety of reasons and having more information about that process, about the legal standards that are going to be applicable, and what they can expect when they go to court are really valuable. I could see how it would make a meaningful difference in terms of pro bono work.

DCBPB: Can you walk us through a typical Pro Se Divorce and Custody clinic and what you do as a team leader?

CN:  Sure. The Pro Se Divorce and the Custody Clinics both have essentially two parts. The first part is what I think of as a classroom session. There’s a presentation to provide people a good overview of the things they need to know in the context of pursuing a divorce, child custody, and/or support case or all three. We try to get people to understand the procedural elements of both starting a case and how it would progress. Basic things for getting a case started including how you file and how to notify the other party or parties that a case has begun.

Additionally, we cover the principle substantive decisions the court can make in the context of one of these family law cases: What are the applicable legal standards and what kinds of information is the court going to weigh on? We also go over mediation to help people understand that even though the court can weigh in, they don’t have to wait for the court. If they are able to reach a compromise on issues then everyone is happy, including the court. 

We give people a lot of information all at once and provide a good base of knowledge to operate from.  One way that I like to think about it is providing information so that they can proceed with confidence rather than fear.  It can be daunting when you think about it: I don’t know what I don’t know. Once you have the information in hand, it’s really empowering for folks in representing themselves in the family court system.

The second part of the clinic happens in a subsequent week. People can come back if they have additional questions, need more information specific to their type of situation or if they want to have us look over forms they have filled out. The clinic volunteers divide up and talk to people one at a time to delve a little bit deeper. In both instances we are trying to give legal information and not legal advice. People are going to have to make their strategic legal decisions themselves based on the information we give them. We are not creating an attorney-client relationship but one that is a little broader based. 

DCBPB: We were informed that you have received a spontaneous ovation at the completion of one of the clinics.  What’s your strategy for running a successful clinic and connecting with the participants?

CN:  I like to make it a little bit fun. Obviously, people who attend the divorce or child custody clinic are not there for reasons that are usually fun. Most are a little daunted by what they face. I think that by injecting a little humor every now and then, poking fun at the ridiculousness of the process, goes a long way with people. I try to be practical and help them understand what the process might be like in a more down to earth way.    

DCBPB: Is your firm supportive of the pro bono work that you do?

CN:  Absolutely. One of the great things about Squire Patton Boggs is a long history of and commitment to pro bono. We have a robust pro bono requirement that is not seen or felt as a burden but as an opportunity by nearly everyone I know at the firm. There is a lot of encouragement and support and they hope we will be out there doing pro bono work. It has been a part of the firm’s fabric since well before I arrived. 

DCBPBP: Do you have any advice for D.C. Bar members who are thinking about volunteering?

CN:  I’d say do it! Whatever it is you’re interested in, there’s something for you. Family law is interesting because you get to see a variety of people and hear their stories, which keeps things fresh. But even if that’s not your thing, find something where you can spend that time giving a little bit back. It’s a nice way of rounding out what you do, it helps you feel better about what you do. It helps you feel better about other people.

I’ve really met a lot of fantastic people doing this program; other volunteers, D.C. Bar staff members, you name it. No matter what it is you want to do, there are people in place and there’s a structure to help you help other people. Just because you don’t know everything there is to know about something, that shouldn’t keep you away. 

DCBPBP: When you are not working or volunteering, how do you like to spend your free time?

CN: Mostly a variety of traditional, typical family activities. I have three kids, so soccer games, music lessons, that’s big part of it. I also love music and find myself trying to make it out to concerts at the 9:30 Club or other places in D.C. There are great places to see concerts living here in D.C.

Carey Nuttall is a partner at Patton Boggs where he advises a diverse array of clients on a wide variety of FDA-related regulatory, public policy and enforcement matters, and related FTC regulatory matters. Prior to joining Patton Boggs, Carey was an Associate Chief Counsel for Enforcement in FDA’s Office of the Chief Counsel.