April 2022 Peek at Pro Bono - Moving the Needle Toward Justice for All

by Jordan Martell

I frequently hear lawyers list the “roadblocks” to committing to pro bono service, including lack of expertise in a particular area of the law, trepidation at counseling humans instead of corporations, concerns over taking on a long-term representation, malpractice insurance concerns, and lack of time. In fact, I may have even used some of these excuses in the past. I have learned, however, that none of these challenges is a legitimate reason to avoid pro bono legal representation. Moreover, I have found that my pro bono work has helped not only my clients, but also myself, both as a lawyer and in my personal life, in dramatic ways.

The experience of modest discomfort—from learning a new area of the law to shifting from counseling Corporate America to the corpus of Californians living below the poverty line (34% or 6.3 million people) to simply raising your hand for an opportunity outside your daily routine—is a powerful stimulus to shift into a “growth mindset,” which has innumerable, well-documented benefits (e.g., enhanced creativity and problem-solving, improved mental resilience). If you’re looking to turbo-charge your career, try changing your mindset—pro bono legal work can get you there!

Personally, pro bono work has helped to evolve my practice of law, improved my understanding of the needs of my community members from all walks of life, imbued me with sense of purpose beyond the purely pecuniary, and filled me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, both for the privilege of being allowed to practice law, and for the good fortune I have experienced in my life that now enables me to repay the community that supported me when my situation was different.

These benefits are available to you as well, and Community Legal Aid SoCal makes it easier than ever.

Community Legal Aid SoCal (CLA SoCal) recently offered me the opportunity to shake up my day-to-day experience by offering pro bono work in the area of immigration. I participated in an online naturalization clinic which led me to further help the client by accompanying her to her final interview at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office.

CLA SoCal staff attorney Sarah Yanez pre-screened the client and her eligibility for naturalization. She provided me with the appropriate documentation. Before meeting with my client, I and other attorneys serving at the clinic received excellent training led by CLA SoCal staff. Once the training was concluded, I was paired with another attorney (a great networking opportunity), and together we met with our client in a private breakout room. During the process of working with the client, if we had any questions or needed some guidance, we could contact Sarah through Zoom chat, and she would enter the breakout room.

My client was one of the fortunate ones to be notified of her final interview within three months after the clinic (the wait is often measured in years). Although there was no expectation from CLA SoCal or the client to accompany her, it was important to me to be with her and see her through the entire process. Sarah shared with me how grateful she was that I agreed to represent the client at her naturalization interview. She expressed how important it is for an attorney to be present with the applicant to ensure that the USCIS officer does not erroneously deny their application.

The interview was scheduled in downtown Los Angeles, and I met my client there, first making sure that she had transportation and was able to pay the parking fees (I cannot emphasize enough how the things we take for granted can create barriers for so many members of our community). We spent a little time waiting, which gave us the opportunity to review the paperwork together in preparation for the interview. USCIS and the interview process were very well organized. The interview lasted less than thirty minutes. My client was prepared and ready to answer every question; I stepped in only once, to clarify a very minor miscommunication between the USCIS official and my client. All in all, it was a pleasant conversation between the client and the USCIS immigration officer, and the easiest hearing I have ever attended. At the end of the interview, the officer told my client to return the next day to be sworn in as a citizen. It was the best possible outcome.

My client’s strength and resolve in the face of the adversity she has known during her young life is truly humbling and inspiring. I know she has already weathered many storms, and, like so many others, her economic situation remains perilous. Nevertheless, to have her citizenship settled certainly puts her on stable footing to move forward into a brighter future. (She is currently finishing her training as a nursing assistant at a time when our health care system needs all of the bright, hard-working, and compassionate people it can get.)

When I consider the difference my scant few hours of pro bono made for my client, her dependent children, and the community that she will soon serve as a nursing assistant, I cannot imagine a better use of my time. Sarah shared these words from the client that reinforced my commitment to pro bono service: “I may never have the words to express how much it meant to me to have met Jordan. It was beyond reassuring and calming to have Jordan’s support at my interview. He was able to help me clarify things to the interviewer and was truly a champion for me. I’d felt fearful of this process, and he and the team at Community Legal Aid SoCal made me feel safe and supported.”

Rule 6.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct states that “[e]very lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay” and calls on us to aspire to at least fifty hours of pro bono service each year. Through those fifty hours of service, a pro bono attorney can make a significant difference in the lives of people they help—those who must make their way through a system built in a way that is difficult to successfully navigate without support and guidance. Sadly, it is perhaps the most disregarded of all of our ethical standards. For me, engaging in pro bono is about more than the rules of professional conduct, though; it is about meeting a moral responsibility, through my profession, to the most vulnerable people in our community.

“Liberty and justice for all” is a fundamental premise of the American Experiment, one that undergirds the stability and sanctity of our democratic republic. It strikes me that our society has indexed heavily on liberty, but justice for all is an equal and necessary component of that equation—liberty without justice is chaos, it’s might-makes-right, it’s the wild west, it’s the Darwinian days of vying for resources and survival; equal justice has a long way to go to attain equal dignity with liberty in our collective conscience. For me, pro bono is the only means by which we, as lawyers, can move the needle on it and reap enormous personal and professional benefits at the same time. Will you join me? To learn more about pro bono opportunities at CLA SoCal, please contact Monica Mar, Director of Pro Bono at mmar@clsocal.org.

Jordan Martell is Vice President, Associate General Counsel at Pacific Life Insurance Company in Newport Beach. He can be reached at Jordan.Martell@pacificlife.com.

Peek at Pro Bono is an occasional column that offers insight into meaningful pro bono work being done by an Orange County lawyer.