All in the Family ...

Family Law is a never-ending caseload at The Pro Bono Project. Our cases can be a simple uncontested divorce all the way to name changes, guardianship, custody issues and everything in between. One thing that remains constant: we always need volunteers.

As part of our events for National Pro Bono Celebration Week, we hosted a 2-hour CLE: All In The Family with a panel composed of Family Law experts and private practice lawyers who don't specialize in Family Law but have easily learned how to work in this practice area. The CLE provided the lawyer who doesn't work in this area with the practical knowledge to help us manage our Family Law caseload. Twenty-two attorneys attended this event.

A Family Law case handled by Catharine Gracia, Senior Counsel in Entergy's Legal Department, was featured in our August, 2014 In Brief (What's In A Name?). So what's a corporate lawyer know about Family Law?

(l to r) Allyson Howie and Catharine Gracia

(l to r) Allyson Howie and Catharine Gracia

Cathy, and her colleague at Entergy, Allyson Howie, Managing Counsel, Information Governance, have taken on some cases within the Family Law area. They've gathered their experience 'on the job' often assisting other, more experienced Family Law attorneys. While Family Law is not their specialty - they both just want to help someone who needs civil legal expertise to get on with their life.

"While in private, general-litigation practice in the 1980s I met a lot of hard-working, good people who had legal problems they simply couldn't afford to solve. I dove in when The Pro Bono Project started in late 1986, serving on the original panel of volunteer attorneys," explains Cathy.

Family Law was not a part of Cathy's private practice, and her work in the area was in partnership with someone more experienced, or as local counsel for an out-of-state resident.

Although Allyson served as research assistant to Professor Katherine Spaht, the Family Law, Successions, and Obligations professor at the LSU Law Center, while in law school, she chose to  go in a different direction after graduation.

"I don't think I could practice Family Law, it is such an emotional time for clients going through a divorce or child custody matters. I don't know how you leave this job at the office at the end of the day. ... I have known so many people who have gone through a divorce, it is always sad when a family is broken up," says Allyson.

Nevertheless, the two colleagues now have enough experience to manage cases directly and often partner with each other to handle Family Law cases for The Project.

"Cathy was reviewing cases at The Project's office and called about taking a particular case and offered to help me with it. I had just finished handling another tutorship through The Project and we had become familiar with the process. I am by no means an expert in this area and had a lot to learn in order to handle the first matter. Also, this second case, was time critical, the mother is very sick and her daughter needed to be admitted to school in another school district. After hearing the facts of the case, I really couldn't say no, it was the right thing to do," explains Allyson.

While this case is still ongoing, Cathy and Allyson find that just helping someone in such dire need is personally so rewarding.

Cathy says that she gets the same feeling that she gets from any pro bono work she does - knowing that a little bit of effort on her part can make a world of difference to the client. Allyson echoes Cathy's sentiments.

"Whether a Family Law matter or not, you are helping someone who truly needs your help, and your area of expertise. Every time I have  handled a pro bono matter, it makes me appreciate all I have in life and how much I have to be thankful for," says Allyson.

The two colleagues have some advice for those thinking about taking on some of The Project's Family Law cases - partner with someone who really knows the law and support the case in any way you can.

"That is how Allyson and I have teamed up at times. She knows the substantive law, I know the processes and litigation issues, and we make a good team," says Cathy.

Both agree that it's not a difficult area of the law but it takes time to learn a new area and be able to draft the proper pleadings. They also agree that Family Law goes a long way in fulfilling The Project's mission of helping its clients.

"Legal actions are very intimidating, and most clients need reassurance and hope by hearing that their problems have a solution. It may not be 100% what they are hoping for, but if they take no action, it cannot get better.  For those who cannot afford counsel, there is no hope without the help of a volunteer. For a non-Family Law attorney, there is always a way to contribute. If you open your mind and heart you will be amazed what you can help folks accomplish," explains Cathy.

While the civil legal expertise is the core need - being able to share that expertise makes a world of difference for both the volunteer and the client.

"At the end of the day you will have learned how to handle a new type of case, you will certainly learn about yourself and you will have helped someone who truly had nowhere else to turn. Just by listening to their story, talking to them and validating their issue you will have already helped more than you know," says Allyson.

If you were unable to attend the recent Family Law CLE, you can still get involved to support one of The Project's biggest areas of need for volunteers.

Please send an email to Linton Carney, Chief Legal Officer and let him know you're interested in getting involved in Family Law.

Be sure to check our Events Calendar regularly for upcoming CLEs. As well, all CLEs are posted on the social media sites so please 'like us' on Facebook, 'follow us' on Twitter and connect to us on LinkedIn.