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TCL > October 2000 Issue > It’s Okay to Ask for Help

October 2000       Vol. 29, No. 10       Page  61
Departments
Pro Bono Success Stories

It’s Okay to Ask for Help
by JoAnn Viola Salazar

For the past eight years, I have served as the Colorado Bar Association’s ("CBA") pro bono support director. It’s part of my job to provide education and support to the pro bono coordinators around the state and to encourage CBA members to do pro bono work.

Volunteering in the legal community makes a statement about our regard for the individuals receiving the benefit of our volunteer work. It is not only important for volunteers to assist in clothing, feeding, and sheltering those who are in need, but also to take on their legal concerns. This helps to validate these clients’ intellectual and emotional needs as well, which is critically important for those who often have been invalidated in every other way.

Volunteering also helps us to grow professionally. We learn by our experience interacting with clients, researching new problems, and working with the courts. I often hear statements such as, "I don’t know anything about family law," or "What if I get a case that turns into a big time commitment?" Those situations don’t usually happen, but if they do, there are resources that offer assistance in preparation and support. It’s okay to ask for help.

Getting The Help You Need

I cannot encourage CBA members to do pro bono work if I do not do it myself. I do take an occasional case. However, like many attorneys, my time is limited, so I try to take cases that can be resolved quickly. That is what I thought I did when I took a restraining order case for a client provided by Project Safeguard and the Colorado Legal Services Permanent Restraining Order Project. I had handled a few of these cases in the past. They generally involve a little client interview time, some preparation, and a short hearing in court. The clients in these programs are truly in need of representation because the balance of power in such abusive relationships can leave them unable to defend themselves against their former partners.

This particular case blew up very quickly. The defendant decided to fight the restraining order vigorously. He had subpoenaed numerous witnesses, including my client’s personal physician. Suddenly, I was faced with a situation in which I had no experience. I had previously represented clients in hearings, but never in an actual trial. Where do I sit? Are there specific questions I should be prepared to ask and to anticipate? How do I introduce physical evidence? On the surface, those may seem to be basic questions, but if you have never been to trial before or if you are in a courtroom with which you are unfamiliar, the prospect can be daunting.

Most of the pro bono offices in Colorado keep a list of mentors who can help with specific case topics. I went back to Project Safeguard for help with the practical aspects of this trial. The referring office is invaluable in providing help in familiarizing yourself with what is expected. Moreover, Colorado Legal Services ("CLS") was able to assist with civil procedure questions. Since my client’s physician had been subpoenaed, I had to learn how to quash a subpoena. After speaking with a CLS lawyer and Gina Weitzenkorn, one of the mentors on the CLS list, I headed to the law library.

I spent eleven years as a law librarian. I know how to research almost anything, but I still asked for help. Being the attorney with the research question is completely different than being asked to look at the question for someone else and handling it in a detached, academic manner. I needed someone with that learned attitude. Gary Alexander at the University of Denver College of Law Library was extremely helpful in giving me some insight and in asking questions about the approach I was using.

Both the University of Denver and the University of Colorado law schools have developed student programs designed to provide research assistance for attorneys who take on larger pro bono cases. Those programs give students the experience of conducting complex research and attorney-volunteers the support they need in handling the more complex cases.

One of the joys of the legal profession is the camaraderie. We encourage our members to become acquainted with one another and to help each other. With my client’s permission, I asked Kathleen Shoen, one of my colleagues, for support and advice. Kath is the CBA Family Violence Program Director. She listened to me present the elements of my case, gave me practical advice on presentation, and offered a great amount of encouragement. As the case came together, I gained more confidence in my ability to hold up my end of a trial.

Remember That We’re Here to Help

When we ask our members to do pro bono work, we don’t expect that a case will become large and difficult, but it can happen. If it does, we are here to help the volunteers in any way that we can. The largest resource we have is each other. Legal services and pro bono offices, as well as the CBA, expect volunteers to ask for assistance when a case becomes more complex than expected. Mentoring is available, as are other forms of support. We also make an on-going effort to provide continuing legal education seminars for pro bono volunteers. For example, in the spring of 2001, we anticipate holding an "Access to Justice Conference" that we think our members, bar leaders, and court personnel will find stimulating and useful.

Most of all, we encourage volunteers to take advantage of the assistance we offer if it is needed. While pro bono is one of the many methods of delivering legal access to those in need, it also should be a means of giving our volunteers experience and satisfaction in their profession.

Oh, yes. I did get the restraining order.


 

Please send us your pro bono success stories to share with our readers. Contact Jo Ann Viola Salazar, CBA Director of Public and Legal Services, at (303) 824-5310; (800) 332-6736; e-mail her at: jvsalazar@cobar. org.



 


This department is published bimonthly and is sponsored by the CBA Department of Public and Legal Services.

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