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Enlarging the Traditional Definition of Pro Bono Service Commentary

Djung Tran


When most of us think of pro bono work, the first thing that probably comes to mind is taking on a case free of charge, where the client can't afford to pay for representation and the attorney feels strongly about the merits of the client's position. As a former public interest attorney who represented victims and survivors of domestic violence without charge, I experienced the rewards of working pro bono-type cases while still getting paid.

Such cases can take a considerable amount of time and commitment to do them well. An attorney usually won't take on a pro bono case unless she is invested in the goals of the litigation and prepared to give it her best shot. Such cases can be enormously time-consuming, and the necessary time commitment can be difficult to estimate at the outset, especially if the case involves an issue outside of your field of expertise.

But winning cases like these is enormously rewarding, too, especially if the client had little other hope of obtaining justice. Such pro bono work is valuable and should be promoted and supported both by employers and bar associations.

There are other ways, however, that lawyers can use their legal skills to serve the public good. For lawyers who cannot take on the extended commitment of a pro bono case, less time-consuming alternatives exist.

As chairwoman of the Community Outreach committee of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania (APABAPA), thinking creatively about this topic is one of my responsibilities.

APABAPA, formerly known as the Asian American Bar Association of the Delaware Valley (AABADV), was formed in 1984 by a small group of Asian lawyers in the Philadelphia area. AABADV was formed in part to address the legal needs of the local Asian Pacific American (APA) communities. The founders of AABADV believed that the needs of APA communities were being ignored by local government.

A primary issue was the lack of hate crimes enforcement against perpetrators of crimes against Southeast Asian refugees who had been resettled in Philadelphia by the U.S. government. Another issue was lack of access to government services by APAs with limited English proficiency.

The Community Outreach committee has, since its inception, been focused on connecting local Asian communities with available legal resources. Our committee targets legally underserved communities; that is, populations that have little contact with the legal profession and may not know about laws that affect their lives in significant ways. We conduct a variety of activities throughout the year. The two types of activities that particularly accord with the goals of pro bono service are our free legal seminar program and our participation in area naturalization drives.

The Community Outreach committee was formed and for a long time chaired by Tsiwen Law, a founding member of APABAPA, partner in Law & Zaslow and the 2008 recipient of the Philadelphia Bar Association's Wachovia Fidelity Award for his achievements in improving the administration of justice in a voluntary capacity.

Law formed the Community Outreach committee when he realized that the local Asian community had limited access to legal resources available to the larger Philadelphia-area community. He observed, for example, that the Philadelphia Bar Association ran the People's Law School, a classroom-based program available after regular work hours that addressed commonly encountered legal topics such as family law and personal injury. This program was open to everyone and charged only a nominal fee.

Within the immigrant Asian population, however, people commonly worked irregular hours (due to working, for example, in the fruit-picking or restaurant industries) and/or lacked proficiency in English, thus presenting barriers to accessing this resource. In response to such dilemmas, Law sought to bring legal education to these communities, at a place and time convenient to community members, and in their native language. The Community Outreach committee worked with established community groups to plan a free legal seminar to be presented at a time and place when community members were available, usually on weekends. The community group often already had a bilingual staffperson able to translate written materials ahead of time and interpret the oral presentation.

The Community Outreach committee's free legal seminar program is simple in theory. APABAPA is a group of lawyers and law students. Within our membership, we have considerable knowledge and experience on a wide variety of legal issues. Why not use this resource to educate the local Asian community about issues that affect them on a regular basis, so that people can make better-informed decisions about legal matters? Things like what to do if you get into a car accident; what happens to your property upon your death; what if you want to get a divorce or file for child support; what if you have been the victim of a crime, you want to open up a business, you want to sponsor a family member from abroad to immigrate to America, you want to become a citizen, and so on.

In reality, producing these seminars isn't as cut-and-dried as one might think. The first challenge is finding an audience. While many local Asian community groups exist in the Greater Philadelphia area, connecting with the right person in one of these groups, someone with the authority and ability to work with us to put on a seminar, can be frustratingly elusive.

Nonprofits and community groups frequently suffer from high turnover of staff, or phone numbers and e-mails no longer work. Thus, just finding someone to talk with becomes a challenge. Once the right contact person is identified, however, and the terms of our offer of free service explained, putting on a seminar becomes much easier.

Seminars typically include between one and four presenters, who are usually lawyers and APABAPA members. Presenters explain the basics of an area of the law and what questions a layperson should be asking when faced with such issues. We try not to delve too deeply into a topic in such a setting, given the lay audience and time constraints. A question-and-answer session is always planned and allows attendees to test and expand their understanding of the topics.

The goal of the seminars is to provide attendees with enough information to avoid common, costly mistakes and to know when they need a lawyer. Our philosophy is that it is easier and cheaper to fix a problem in its infancy than to let it fester, becoming more intractable. Hiring a lawyer may be an expensive endeavor; but not hiring a lawyer, in certain situations, may cost much more in the long run.

Recent community groups to which we have presented include the Philadelphia chapter of the Korean American Grocers Organization, the Vietnamese Hung Vuong Association, and the Korean Women's Center of Montgomery County. Recent topics have included immigration, family law/domestic violence, personal injury law, small business law and estate planning. The choice of topics belongs entirely to the community group. We often have to resist the temptation to impose our own ideas of what topics would be useful and allow our audience to tell us what they want.

After seminars, we have received uniformly positive feedback.

In fact, the only "negative" feedback I have encountered is that the committee does not present often enough. The committee seems to be one of those rare animals in the world of legal education; it provides a free educational service, with no strings attached. Our only goal is to inform people and keep them out of trouble. It is work that is personally satisfying and lays the groundwork for a more legally informed citizenry who will have the tools to make better legal decisions.

Naturalization drives are another type of pro bono work that the Community Outreach committee supports. Although the committee has not sponsored its own naturalization drive during my tenure as chairman, we readily help out with drives spearheaded by others, including ones organized by the Korean American Lawyers Association and by Nationalities Service Center and HIAS and Council.

Such drives require only a one-time commitment of up to a day of an attorney's time and expertise. We recruit lawyers and law students to help legal residents complete naturalization applications and flag cases that require expert attention. This past year, prior to a naturalization drive, we provided training to our volunteers without immigration backgrounds, to ensure that they became familiar with issues that might cause problems for applicants.

In addition to naturalization drives, non-partisan voter registration drives also fit the type of service that our members could provide in the space of a day. And plenty of other ideas are out there, just waiting to be implemented!

So, when you contemplate how to give back to your communities, consider such services as described in this article as another option available in the pro bono repertoire. APABAPA's Community Outreach committee is not the only organization doing such work. Find out what programs already exist that you can join; or, if nothing exists in your particular area of interest, start something!

Djung Tran is an associate with Smith & McMaster, a general practice small firm in Newtown, Pa. Her current practice is mainly in municipal representation and land use. Prior to joining the firm, she practiced family and immigration law, representing victims and survivors of domestic violence with the Legal Assistance Program of A Woman's Place, a private nonprofit serving Bucks County. She has chaired the Community Outreach committee of the APABAPA since 2007, and serves as the assistant editor of the Bucks County Law Reporter.