Editor’s note: Lawrence Tu originally posted this piece on a blog for Dell lawyers. It is re-published here with his permission in recognition of Celebrate Pro Bono Week.
By Lawrence P. Tu, senior vice president and general counsel of Dell Inc.
I recently had the privilege of joining a group of Dell attorneys who volunteered to help staff a legal clinic run by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas, which provides free legal assistance to low-income Central Texans. This is a long-standing program which Dell Legal has supported for over 5 years. The clinic itself operates twice a week, and on the third Wednesday of every month Vinson & Elkins, Dell Legal, and Austin ACC collaborate to provide legal volunteers. It was a sobering and uplifting experiencing, and it made me proud of Dell Legal’s support of this pro bono effort.
The setting was a cafeteria in a middle school located off the highway just north of downtown Austin, over-flowing with dozens of individuals (in some cases couples or entire families) spanning all ages and races. Many had brought documents, pictures, receipts and other files to plead their case. By the time we arrived at 6 PM, each person or group had already filled out a brief in-take form describing why they were there, and these forms were stacked up at the tables at the front of the room staffed by legal aid professionals. The volunteer lawyers go the tables, each is handed a case-form, briefly reviews it, and then calls out the individual’s name; they meet up and then spend as much time as is needed to move the matter forward to the next stage. We are instructed to conduct an in-depth interview to identify and clarify the client’s issue, and then either help qualifying attendees get their cases referred to Legal Aid or Volunteer Legal Services for formal legal representation, or provide basic advice about next steps for those who do not qualify. A team of professionals from local legal aid organizations is present throughout the evening to advise and guide the volunteers on substantive and procedural questions. As we wrapped up each matter, we would return to the table for another in-take form and start the process with the next “client.” By around 8:30 PM the volunteers had worked through all the stacks of in-take forms and the room had emptied out.
In my case I teamed up with another volunteer and we dealt with cases as varied as a woman living in a rat-infested apartment looking for help to deal with an unresponsive landlord; a long-divorced woman facing eviction and whose car was about to be repossessed by creditors, who wanted to find a way to force her ex-husband to provide her with a replacement car because years ago while they were married he had totaled another car of hers; an unmarried young mother who wanted to surrender visitation rights to her son (who was living with her ex-boyfriend) on the mistaken belief that she would thereby automatically be relieved of her child support obligations (how she became saddled with court-ordered child support obligations when she was unemployed and raising three children on her own on food stamps remained a mystery); and a destitute unmarried couple looking for ways to enforce a divorce decree against the man’s ex-wife (whose whereabouts were unknown) in order to collect the divorce settlements payments she promised to make but never did.
We found that much of our time was spent trying to understand their situation. Frequently what they told us didn’t fit together, or didn’t match the documents they had with them, and it took time and patience to unravel their stories. In some cases we needed translators because they didn’t speak English. Most of these cases were heartbreaking because they involve individuals with few resources, who are living on the edge, and who have little or no understanding of the legal system which had burdened their lives or which they hoped could dramatically improve their prospects. Many of the conversations ended up focused on long-ago grievances and wrongs which could not be fixed, and frequently we discovered uninformed mistakes they made earlier in the legal process which left them with little or no recourse. As each story emerged many of us would think to ourselves: if only they had come in and gotten advice before X, Y or Z happened, we could have done something more for them.
Still, in some cases we were able to refer them to formal legal representation, and in other cases we provided them with self-help information – such as small-claims court forms and a list of help-line phone numbers – to enable them to take the matters forward on their own. Where the situation was without hope, we would honestly but diplomatically inform them that they were likely at the end of the road on that issue, and should consider moving on with their lives and leaving that in the past.
Despite their troubles and predicaments, almost all we met carried themselves with remarkable grace and composure and, regardless of the outcome or advice they received, they seemed genuinely appreciative of the time and effort we gave them and thanked us repeatedly for listening to their problems. We were later told by the legal aid lawyers that for many individuals, just the fact that someone took the time to listen seriously and respectfully to them was valuable in itself, and also because in some cases it helped them reach closure on problems that had no solutions. I also came away deeply impressed by the legal aid professionals, who brought to their jobs a mix of technical and legal skills, deep empathy, and pragmatic realism. Even with that, I imagine that their jobs must be physically and emotionally draining.
I want to thank all of my colleagues in-house and at law firms who have found the time to participate in activities such as these. For those of you who haven’t had the chance yet, I would encourage you to sign up and try it out – you will be surprised by how much you get out of it.