For the Public Good
Pro Bono Work in Dauphin County
The path to becoming an attorney is one of hard work and dedication, filled with hundreds if not thousands of hours of study as well as years of college and law school. Then, there is the infamously difficult bar exam to pass. The process is anything but easy, but, oftentimes, if those who pursue the career of lawyer and find gainful employment, the rewards are high – status, power, finance and, to many practitioners of law, charity.
This last reward carries its own name in the world of law – “pro bono.” Short for the Latin phrase “pro bono publico,” which translates to “for the public good,” it essentially means free legal representation for those who cannot afford an attorney. And while pro bono work is by no means a requirement of being a lawyer, it is often expected by many bar associations.
“We don’t like to use the word ‘volunteer’ because we expect every member to do pro bono work,” says Sandy Ballard, Esq., public services coordinator of the Dauphin County Bar Association (DCBA). “Instead of recruiting volunteers, we alphabetically go through our member list of 1,400 members and assign them a date and time to do pro bono work. ...We feel pro bono work is part of what it means to be part of the Dauphin County Bar Association.”
Ballard, a graduate of Harvard Law who previously ran a legal services program for the homeless in Philadelphia, doesn’t simply expect the more than 1,450 DCBA members to give back, she also encourages and enables them to do so.
“I find that our members here want to do good works and give back to the community,” Ballard says. “And my job is to enable them to do just that.”
MidPenn Legal Services, a branch of which is housed in the same building as the DCBA on Front Street in Harrisburg, is the primary recipient of this pro bono work.
According to its mission statement, MidPenn is a “nonprofit, public-interest law firm dedicated to providing equal access to justice and high quality civil legal services to low-income residents and survivors of domestic violence in 18 counties in Central Pennsylvania.”
The Harrisburg office of MidPenn staffs a mere five attorneys to serve Dauphin and Perry counties, which is why DCBA focuses the majority of its members’ pro bono work upon it.
Ballard further details MidPenn’s need, “MidPenn can only help about 20 percent of the need – for every one person they help, five are turned away. If they had more money, more donations, they could help more people. Even with the funding that they have and the limited number of people they can help, the Dauphin County Bar Association tries to supplement their help. We look at the pro bono program here as a supplement to the very good work that MidPenn can do.”
If pro bono work is not a good fit for an attorney with the DCBA, there are plenty of other alternatives to help the community with a skill only they possess.
“There is an almost infinite number of other options to help if they opt not to help MidPenn, which can be a contribution of $300 to help fund MidPenn’s staff lawyers, they can help clients fill out paperwork, they can help the ACLU with civil rights cases or they can help the domestic violence legal clinic at the YWCA.”
Kandice Kerwin Hull, Esq., an attorney for McNees Wallace & Nurick within the Harrisburg firm’s litigation group, began doing pro bono work at the start of her career as a lawyer. She credits her colleague, Jim DeAngelo, for introducing her to the charitable legal work. She is also now the pro bono coordinator at the firm.
Hull describes why pro bono work is important to her. “If attorneys don’t step up to do it, the need just goes unmet,” she says. “Attorneys are the ones who can represent people in court and help them out in this way, and because of that, I think we have an obligation to do so. There is a huge disparity in the kind of result you can get in court when you have an attorney and when you do not. You can make a huge difference in people’s lives.”
Nathaniel Holmes, Esq., a workers’ compensation defense attorney for Chartwell Law Offices in Harrisburg, started doing pro bono work through DCBA several years ago, taking on as many as six free cases a year.
Holmes explains why he offers his time and expertise to those in need, despite the busy schedule his career demands. “It’s important because everybody deserves a fair shake,” he says. “Not everybody can afford an attorney – in fact, a lot of people can’t afford an attorney. I believe that the system is a fair system if we can get everyone in the system. Unfortunately, some people are unable to get into the litigation process because they don’t have the money for an attorney. So, the pro bono program we have here in the county looks to eliminate that barrier. Anything I can do to help with that mission, I try to do.”
Ballard adds, “We as the legal community in general support legal services and believe that everyone should have a lawyer. If we had enough funding so that everyone who needed a lawyer had one, we’d have a much better legal system.”
Each year, the DCBA recognizes and rewards a Dauphin County pro bono lawyer of the year. Holmes is the recipient of the award for 2014.
For more information about the DCBA, visit dcba-pa.org. To learn more about MidPenn Legal Services, visit midpenn.org.
“Attorneys are the ones who can represent people in court and help them out in this way, and because of that, I think we have an obligation to do so.”
~ Kandice Kerwin Hull, Esq., attorney for McNees Wallace & Nurick
“We don’t like to use the word ‘volunteer’ because we expect every member to do pro bono work.”
~ Sandy Ballard, Esq., public services coordinator, Dauphin County Bar Association
“It’s important because everybody deserves a fair shake.”
~ Nathaniel Holmes, Esq., attorney for Chartwell Law Offices