The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.
Pro bono work is “life-changing” for clients, says Lisa L. Taylor, a director on the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA) board and past president of the Cameron County Bar Association (CCBA). Lisa became interested in doing pro bono work after finding that the need for decent pro bono service in the Rio Grande Valley was “unfathomable,” especially with the Valley’s proximity to the border of Mexico. She participated in a Community Justice Program (CJP) in Bexar County and liked it. So she helped the Cameron County Bar Association with the founding of their CJP in 2005. The CJP is a night court where attorneys, judges, and other legal professionals come together to help indigent persons with pro bono divorces. The program has handled hundreds of uncontested divorces since its creation.
Before the CJP, according to Taylor, the pro bono program in Cameron County was ineffective. One person was in charge, and there was no screening process. “We were lucky if we got 10 to 15 pro bono cases in a year,” she said. Without a screening process, there were numerous problems and more refusals to clients seeking pro bono. The Cameron County CJP fills the need for help with divorce cases, which TRLA is unable to cover, because it handles mostly emergency and violence-related cases.
The Cameron County CJP is volunteer-only with no funding. The Cameron County Bar Association coordinates groups of volunteers for the clinics. Taylor and her CJP colleagues also ask law firms to participate in certain clinics and provide initial training and mentoring needed for attorney volunteers. The CJP clinics are run by TRLA and the CCBA in the UT-Brownsville building, and they meet every other month, with rotating judges overseeing the clinics. The CJP holds 5 sessions a year and an average of 10-15 cases per session. It recently expanded to Hidalgo and Willacy counties.
Taylor is a former member of the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section council and was on the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section’s Practice Manual and Legislative committees. She received an award for distinguished service, the Cameron County Bar Association Paula Waddle Distinguished Service Award for 2008-2009.
Taylor appreciates being in a position to help and do pro bono work and says the best thing about it is helping clients and encouraging other lawyers to do more pro bono, whether it is volunteering more through the CJP, doing pro bono through their own practices, or spreading the word to other attorneys to do more pro bono.