Pro Bono Lawyers: Making a Powerful Difference 11/19/14 11/19/14 1:14:56 AM
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Meaningful and Impactful
Pro Bono Lawyers:
Making a Powerful Difference
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
They do it for free.
Well, not all the time, but in times of need, they come through for those most in need.
For Legal Aid of Nebraska, such work is vital, as Legal Aid helps those among us who need legal help but have no where else to turn.
Attorney Matthew Dunning, who served as president of the nonprofit’s board of directors for five years and still sits on the board, put it this way:
“The value of pro bono services to the population served by Legal Aid cannot be overestimated. In too many cases we are simply unable to provide extended representation, and the private bar is integral to filling that gap,” Dunning said. “Fortunately, there are many lawyers who take seriously their duties to provide free legal services; they consistently provide clients with excellent and professional representation.”
In its 2013 Annual Report, Legal Aid of Nebraska noted eight private sector attorneys for their contributions. Honored were: Brandon Dickerson, Jarrod Reece, and Nancy Morris of Stinson Leonard Street, LLP; Joseph Dreesen and Chris Hoyme of Jackson Lewis; Scott Jahn of Women’s Center for Advacemenet; Jerry Sena of Sena and Polk LLP; and Shaun Ilahi, a private practice attorney who now serves as general counsel for Habitat for Humanity.
Here is a closer look at three of them.
Nancy MorrisBorn in Omaha, Nancy Morris attended elementary and high school in the city, then stayed close to attend UNO and Creigh-ton Law School. For reasons related to her course of study, she lived for a short time in Dallas and then Columbia, Mo.
Stinson Leonard Street, LLP
“I met my attorney husband, Joe Muller, in law school, where we sat next to each other – at least when he deigned to actually attend class. Ha ha!”
Before she began the practice of law, Morris taught science in junior and senior high school, and at UNO, and also spent three years as a laboratory research assistant with the Eppley Cancer Center at UNMC.
Her work at Stinson Leonard Street LLP finds her working as a patent attorney, where she helps her clients obtain patent protection for cutting edge technologies.
“I am lucky to work in an area of law that allows me to continue to keep up to date in the sciences. As a trademark attorney, I help businesses develop and protect their branding and defend the goodwill and reputation of the company,” she stated. “Copyright is a third aspect of my intellectual property law practice. I assist authors and artists in protecting their rights to copyright in the works they create.”
Morris explained that her fellow attorneys at Stinson Leonard Street have a long history of involvement in pro bono work for community organizations and individuals.
“Several years ago I began assisting Legal Aid of Nebraska in obtaining and protecting their trademarks and service marks,” Morris recalled. “When I was asked by Annette Farnan [currently interim executive director] to continue on a pro bono basis, I wondered why I had not thought to do so, and gladly accepted.”
Included in her work was helping Nebraska Legal Services move through a series of changes starting in 2004 as it became Legal Aid of Nebraska and a new logo was created.
“They have also begun offering and referring legal services under the marks ACCESSLINE and ELDERACESSLINE,” she added. “As the only non-profit law firm in Nebraska, these service marks have come to represent Legal Aid of Nebraska’s goals and reputation of service to underprivileged citizens of Nebraska.
“I assisted Legal Aid in developing their goodwill by obtaining protection for these marks.”
She acknowledges getting a good feeling from the work and encourages other attorneys to consider doing pro bono work for Legal Aid of Nebraska.
“Find a way to utilize your legal skills and do something you like doing that benefits a community organization or the citizens of the community you live in,” she suggested.
A major success story is demonstrated in the commitment her firm has made to helping those in need.
“Stinson Leonard Street has signed on to the American Bar Association’s ‘Pro Bono Challenge’ and our attorneys are committed to contributing 3 percent of billable hours to pro bono work,” Morris stated. “We are at 2.7 percent already this year, and our long term goal is to reach the 3 percent every year hereafter.”
Scott HahnScott Hahn was born and raised in Omaha, the son of a school teacher mother. He said she never let him off easy with studying and always made sure he had everything he needed to be successful. After attending Bryan Senior High School and then Creighton University for both undergrad and law school, he graduated from law school in 2006. He worked for Legal Aid for almost two years before moving to the Women’s Center for Advancement (WCA) as the client attorney in October of 2008.
At the WCA he provides pro bono legal services, from legal advice to extended representation, to low-income survivors of domestic violence/sexual assault living in the Omaha metro and surrounding areas. He works with a part-time paralegal and a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA)-accredited representative.
“While my primary practice area is family law/domestic relations cases involving domestic violence/sexual assault issues, our BIA-accredited representative provides pro bono immigration services to our clients who are living in the United States without legal status,” Hahn said.
Often, those individuals without legal status also are domestic violence/sexual assault (DVSA) victims.
“Aside from legal and immigration services, the Women’s Center for Advancement provides an array of other beneficial client support services and referrals that are crucial to addressing the multi-layered issues our clients face,” Hahn added.
Hahn said he continues to accept pro bono cases from Legal Aid, adding the nonprofit played a big part in establishing and supporting his current position with the WCA. The Legal Aid staff of attorneys and paralegals, he added, continues to offer him their support in the cases he takes on for them.
“It is really a win-win for both agencies,” Hahn said. “Legal Aid has one more attorney willing to assist clients in desperate need with pro bono legal assistance, and I have been the recipient of invaluable experience and knowledge as a result of working on cases referred from them.”
Hahn noted that Legal Aid is just one of the numerous agencies/attorneys that refer clients to him for pro bono legal services.
Most of Hahn’s work for Legal Aid has been done in the areas of family law/domestic relations cases with DVSA issues involved. Those have included, but are not limited to, divorce, custody, child support, modifications, removal, contempt hearings, protection order hearings and some appellate work.
“Also, just recently, I was notified of approval of a U-Visa for an undocumented client that I received via referral from the Nebraska Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Coalition back in 2012,” he stated. The client has since picked up her documentation and paperwork.
The work, he admits, provides some good feelings.
“At the end of each day, I realize that I am one of the most important persons in my clients’ lives,” he acknowledged. “Given that most of them have relatively less compared to those clients that can afford a private attorney, and what I am able to do for them, my work is a constant source of affirmation that I am doing something very meaningful and impactful with my career.”
Hahn hopes other attorneys will join in providing the much needed help to the less fortunate.
“If you really want to feel like what you do matters, and is changing another person’s life for the better at the end of day, then pledge to take on just one of these cases a year,” he suggested. “You will likely become, for some client and their loved ones, a difference-maker in their lives.”
Shaun IlahiAfter earning his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, Ilahi came to Omaha and earned his law degree at Creighton University. In the past, he has worked in private practice.
Now with Habitat for
Humanity of Omaha
“Currently, I am general counsel at Habitat for Humanity of Omaha. I focus on land acquisition and legal compliance issues,” he explained. “I also manage and facilitate Habitat’s legal pro bono workshop in resolving legal issues that may arise during Habitat’s day-to-day operation.
“There is always something new and interesting to work on at Habitat, and it is very rewarding to put a smile on the faces of deserving families.”
Ilahi said he met a number of Legal Aid employees over the years and always was impressed with their dedication, expertise and commitment to giving back to the community.
“I wanted to give back to the community in a professional manner and thought that dedicating a portion of my time to do pro bono work for Legal Aid would be a great opportunity,” he stated.
Many of the cases Ilahi has handled for Legal Aid have been divorce cases.
“A majority of the clients were victims of domestic violence and wanted to divorce their spouses,” Ilahi explained. “Unfortunately, a majority of them did not have the financial means or know-how to pursue the proper course of action.”
Too often, that resulted in their being trapped in a vicious cycle, while others would leave their spouses without the proper legal documentation, which only created further complications if in the future they decided to remarry or sell their joint assets.
His pro bono divorce work provides a good feeling, he admits, but the greater satisfaction comes from seeing the relief and joy in the eyes of his clients when the judge finalizes the divorce.
“It is rewarding to see them start a new chapter in their lives and to know that you contributed to improving their quality of life,” he stressed.
Ilahi said he strongly would encourage any attorney to volunteer their time to Legal Aid.
“Sometimes it is easy to get bogged down with the daily grind of work,” he admitted. “Volunteering your time to do pro bono work helps break the regular routine, provides a different perspective on things and helps create a genuine human connection.”
When asked about a success story, Ilahi said a majority of the cases he worked on had successful results for his clients, but all were unique and brought with them different challenges.
“I think the main thing that you don’t realize is, that as an attorney, you volunteer your time thinking that you are there to help them,” Ilahi said. “But what you don’t realize is that in the process the clients help you as well.
“There is a mutual benefit – sometimes, at the end of the day, you wonder which party is benefiting more.”
That statement, as well as anything, sums up the need for – and the benefits of – pro bono legal work.