Monday, May 9, 2011
The Opportunity to be an Advocate and Counselor through the Saturday Lawyer Program
by: Jonathan D. Olinger, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP
I have always known that I wanted my legal career to include a robust pro bono practice. I knew that it would provide me with exposure to a variety of legal issues and opportunities that I would not have if I focused only on my intellectual property practice. Further, I view pro bono work as an opportunity to gain quality advocacy experience at a young age.
My firm, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP, has maintained a long-standing relationship with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) and its Saturday Lawyer Program. My colleagues had nothing but positive things to say about the program and told me that it would be a great way to get the pro bono work that I have been looking for.
Prior to my scheduled Saturday, Michael Lucas, an attorney at AVLF, provided me with a brief summary of the Saturday Lawyer Program and a handbook describing the primary types of disputes handled by the program. These resources were a great help, because I was initially apprehensive about advocating for a client in an area of law in which I have little or no experience. The materials were thorough and straightforward, and provided me with a great wealth of information about the legal issues I would be asked to handle.
When I arrived, I was informed that I would be interviewing, and possibly representing, a couple that had a landlord/tenant dispute. I read over the file and it immediately became apparent that these individuals were in need of legal representation. Upon moving into their rental home, my clients immediately noticed that the house they were renting was in need of several repairs, including substantial repairs to the home’s plumbing system. The plumbing problems were so bad that my clients were unable to wash their clothes or use the home’s only bathroom.
I anticipated that my primary task in working with them would be to provide them with information about their right to demand immediate repairs, their ability to reduce their rental payments to compensate for any repairs they made themselves, and the possibility of asserting a defense of constructive eviction should they choose to vacate the home. I was also prepared to volunteer to be an advocate for them and to negotiate a mutually agreeable outcome with their landlord.
Once the interview began, however, I realized that my role that day and throughout my representation of these clients would be far more focused on counseling than advocacy. My clients felt that they had been wronged. They strongly believed that all of the repairs that they requested were necessary repairs and that they had been reasonable in all of their requests. In their mind, all that they were asking for was a home that was secure and safe, but their landlord had been unresponsive. I could tell that as much as they needed someone to advise them of their legal rights, they also just needed someone to listen to their story, understand their plight, and acknowledge that they had been treated unfairly. The majority of our session was spent with me listening to them recount their story and express their frustrations.
When they had finished explaining their situation, I felt that the first thing that I had to say to them was “I’m sorry that you have been treated this way.” Even though I was not their landlord or any other person who had been involved in this dispute, I could instantly see that a simple gesture that acknowledged their feelings helped them feel vindicated and started the process of allowing them to move forward. Thanks to the resources provided to me prior to that Saturday and the fantastic assistance of the AVLF staff on-hand that day, I felt well-equipped to then counsel my clients on the legal issues presented and explain to them the next steps. Whether or not the law was going to ultimately be in their favor, I could sense that having someone who was going to listen to their positions and advocate for them was a huge relief. Since that time, I have had the opportunity to work with my clients and the landlord to find an amicable resolution and lay this matter to rest.
As a young lawyer working at a large firm, the opportunities for one-on-one client counseling can be limited. The AVLF Saturday Lawyer Program provided me with an excellent opportunity to have one-on-one counseling experience with clients who were in an emotionally vulnerable place and had limited experience with the law. While I was expecting to refine my advocacy skills through the experience, it was a welcome surprise to be able to also exercise my counseling skills as well.
AVLF’s Saturday Lawyer program is such a well-organized and rewarding program, and I highly recommend it.
To learn more about the Saturday Lawyer Program, or to discuss volunteer opportunities, please contact Dionne Hines Morse at firstname.lastname@example.org.