Why I’m Pro Pro Bono and You Should Be Too

by Matthew Bray


Pro bono refers to work for the public good and in service to low-income clients. As legal professionals, our law licenses symbolize the economic monopoly we have over the provision of legal services. With that monopoly comes an obligation to ensure that those legal services are available to all who need them, and not just the select few that can afford to pay for them. There are few fields where this obligation is more important than in immigration law. Unlike criminal law, where a defendant has a constitutional right to be provided an attorney in the event that they cannot afford one, in immigration law–and most other areas of civil law–there is no right to free counsel. Over the last decade, there has been an increasing recognition of the need for a “civil Gideon” right (Gideon refers to the seminal Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, that established the right to counsel in criminal proceedings)–the right to counsel for the poor in civil matters, including housing, family, and immigration law, among other areas of law.

Within immigration law, we are presented with a particularly acute crisis of representation. There are an estimated 11-13 million people living in the United States without a lawful immigration status. Hundreds of thousands of people are ordered deported each year. Many of the poorest of these people are facing deportation without legal representation due to a lack of funds. In a very few places such as New York City, organizations and programs have been established to meet some of this need (such as Immigrant Justice Corps and NYFUP), but there is still a need for individual attorneys to do their part and give back. This is easier said than done, particularly in a field like immigration law which is dominated by small firms and solo practitioners just getting by themselves. This is why it is so important that attorneys volunteering their services get the support they need to provide effective legal services to the poor.

The Pro Bono Committee of AILA’s New York Chapter, which I co-chair, provides such opportunities. Along with the City Bar Justice Center, the Committee organizes free consultation-based clinics in different neighborhoods throughout New York City. The project, called the New York City Immigrant Advocacy Initiative (NYCIAI), serves hundreds of people each year and partners with a diverse group of community organizations.  We provide high quality consultations that include individualized roadmaps for each case, and referrals to free and low-cost legal service providers to help them put their plan into action. By going out into the communities, NYCIAI serves as an alternative to the predatory “notarios” and others engaged in unauthorized practice of law that take advantage of immigrants. Not only can attorneys feel good about giving back, they can also use the clinics to learn valuable skills. The people coming to these clinics present a very wide variety of legal issues that the volunteers would not otherwise be exposed to, and the NYCIAI mentors provide the expertise to address those issues and teach the volunteers as well. The volunteer attorneys can then take that knowledge back to their own practices, thereby developing their own expertise.

The other project of the local chapter’s Pro Bono committee is its Children’s Docket. The committee is responsible for screening the children ordered to appear before a judge at one of several dockets in the New York City Immigration Court devoted exclusively to the removal of unaccompanied minor immigrants. The majority of these children fled severe violence and poverty in Central America and made their way through Mexico to reach the border, and have been fighting removal ever since then. Many of them are eligible for permanent residence through a “Special Immigrant Juvenile Status” (SIJS) based on the neglect, abuse, or abandonment of their parents, or through asylum based on having been targeted by gangs for recruitment or crimes; however, without representation, many of these youths have no access to these remedies. The Pro Bono Committee works to recruit AILA attorneys in New York to take on these cases and give these young people a chance at the American Dream, or at least a refuge from the violence and poverty they fled. The Committee is fortunate to count on a team of legal experts in the field of family and immigration law that serve as mentors to the volunteer attorneys taking on the cases. This ensures that the volunteers have the support they need to succeed with these challenging but rewarding cases.

In 2012, the New York State Court of Appeals adopted a new rule requiring that each applicant for admission to the state bar perform a minimum of fifty hours of pro bono service. All licensed attorneys are expected to report the number of pro bono hours that they perform each year. As the pro bono requirements become more common, we can expect to see an increase in the number of attorneys–particularly new attorneys–seeking pro bono opportunities. This is a heartening development, and a cause for optimism in the immigration field, given the acute need. It also highlights the need for structured, supportive pro bono opportunities that not only provide a service but teach attorneys to integrate such service into their practices and their careers.

For me personally, doing pro bono work has introduced me to more of New York’s many immigrant communities, and has taught me an incredible amount of immigration law. The people I have served have taught me as well–I have deep admiration for people who have fought so hard and so long for their freedom and piece of the American dream. I have grown both as an attorney and as a person because of the pro bono work, and look forward to continuing to do so well into the future.