Why providing Pro Bono services is important to our practice.
HOW IT STARTED: At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 10, 1999, a Franciscan Monk and a 15 year old boy from Eritrea appeared in the lobby of the law firm in Cheshire, Connecticut where I was working as an associate attorney. I had only been at the law firm a few months, having just moved with my new wife from Washington, D.C. I had never handled an Immigration case and had only general knowledge of the process from my wife's green card application, which at the time was lost with INS. The monk was from a catholic order in the Bronx and to this day, I have no idea how he found my name and why he drove from the Bronx to see me. His boy had been sent by his parents to live with the monks in order to flee the violence that had followed Ethopia's military invasion in 1998. When I informed the monk that I was a litigator who handled contract and title disputes, he told me that he would pray for me to learn Immigration law while I figured out how to keep the boy in the United States.
After a year of learning and making many mistakes, I was succesful in obtaining a special immigrant juvenile petition for the boy. He became a permanent resident, went to college and is now a United States citizen. For the next 20 years, the monks would continue to send me pro bono clients and pray for me to learn Immigration law.
The Beginning of a Law Practice: That first case lead to a large pro bono practice of asylees from many parts of Africa. It was a lot to ask of the law firm that was paying me a salary to work for paying clients. In 2001, with my wife just past nine months pregnant with our first daughter, I decided that it was time to start my own law practice. I told my wife that I was tired of asking permission to take pro bono cases. My wife pointed out that a steady income and health insurance might be advisable given her then immediate circumstances. In January 2001, I moved my law practice into the back seat of my worn-out Jeep Cheorokee while I looked for office space in New Haven.
The first year of practice, I had about 15 paying clients and more than 50 pro bono clients. Without any forethought or intentionality, the pro bono practice grew into a paying practice. Pro bono clients became residents, started businesses, had car accidents, and referred other family and friends. As the practice grew and matured, our Pro Bono practice remained. The nature of the pro bono work also changed from basic asylums to involve more complex social justice issues.
When Everything Changed: In 2016 everything changed. New enforcement policies and tactics were threatening the opportunities for my clients to recieve due process. They were being violently separated from their families, and demonized in political discourse. My then law partner Elyssa Williams and I decided to divide our efforts in responding to the new environment. Elyssa took on the representation of detained clients and I represented everyone else. In challenging the removal of our clients, we found ourselves increasingly in court and more often than we liked, in front of news cameras.
We also engaged with community and religious organizations that sought to support our clients and other immigrant communities. The guiding principal in all of our cases was to empower our clients and let the community speak first. As lawyers, our role was to defend and facilitate successful outcomes for our clients and their communities.
Where We are Growing: After three years of exhausting and often public represenation of individuals and communities, we transitioned our efforts away from direct represention to educating and supporting others in the representation of immigrants. These activities included organizing support teams of volunteers for individual pro bono cases, seeking private funding for free legal representation through organizations like New Haven Legal Aid, and connecting with Immigrant Advocacy organizations to provide more direct support to help their members with specific immigration problems. We have also been active in organizing free and low cost counseling services for refugees suffering from post-traumatic stress related to the horrifying events in their home countries.
In 1999, there were few organizations that represented or advocated for immigrants. Today, the number has increased and continues to grow. Most importantly, Immigrants are organizing and advocating for themselves. As we move forward, our pro bono practice and social justice mission has evolved to support and empower.
Below are some of our activities and links to organizations and churches with which we work.