When Melanie Gleason received her law degree from Golden Gate University School of Law in 2014, she was already certain she didn’t want an office job. With a background in teaching and community organizing, the whole reason Gleason went into law was to work with and help people in a tangible way.
So in July 2015, Gleason tried something pretty brave and innovative: She started an online crowdsourcing campaign to fund a yearlong traveling pro bono law practice. Once she had enough financial support, she gave away almost all of her possessions and hit the road in her Smart car to provide 100 percent free legal services to communities throughout the United States that lack access to justice.
With more than $16,000 raised to fund her “Attorney on the Move” project, Gleason has worked as a volunteer attorney in California’s rural Central Valley, a federal immigration detention center in Washington, Blackfeet tribal areas in northern Montana, a Navajo reservation in Arizona, and immigration facilities in New Mexico. She’s currently in Texas, where she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin back in 2005. Gleason, who is licensed in Massachusetts, is working on federal immigration matters at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City.
Gleason has decided to stay on her journey for the foreseeable future by opening a virtual law office in July—and she’s trying to raise $20,000 to help her do so. She will continue to focus on affordable and pro bono immigration legal services, particularly in rural areas, and will work with clients remotely while still being on the go. Gleason is considering whether to form a nonprofit to seek grants and alternate sources of funding. “But a primary source will still be relying on individual grassroots donors,” Gleason said, “which has been the cornerstone of this project since the very beginning.”
For more information on Gleason’s journey and crowdsourcing campaign, go to attorneyonthemove.com. Stay tuned for the May issue of the Texas Bar Journal, which will focus on pro bono issues.
How have your expectations for making a difference as an attorney compared with the reality?
The exciting thing is, in many cases, the immediate impact you can have on an individual’s life. For example, the last couple months that I’ve been volunteering at the Dilley and Karnes City family detention centers, things move very quickly and lawyers are needed to meet with asylum seekers right away. To be able to prep a woman for her “credible fear interview” [conducted when individuals seek asylum protection due to fear of persecution, torture, and returning to their home countries] or represent her at a bond hearing in immigration court can change the trajectory of a life in an instant.
Why did you decide it was important to be “on the move” versus helping a single community long-term?
One thing that is plaguing the justice system in the United States is how much of a silo issues can exist in. For example, immigration looks very different in Texas than in Arizona, Washington, or a number of other places. I feel there is a danger to this mentality, as there needs to be a more thorough and holistic understanding of how, for example, detention centers are run throughout the country. This helps to piece together a broader narrative of how detainees are often unable to obtain justice everywhere—and being able to relate those experiences.
I believe there is a role for every lawyer to play. I feel that mine is to go directly into areas that don’t have many lawyers and provide needed legal representation. I want to continue to learn about things that are working in certain places and things that are not working as well—and share those lessons with a broader community.
How do you choose the communities where you will work?
It’s a combination of different things. But mostly, I identify places where there is a need for pro bono lawyers. When I was in Montana last fall, I worked with an attorney who was the only lawyer for 100 miles. There have been some days working at the Karnes City family detention center where I was the only volunteer attorney there. There are so many areas of this country that lack legal services access—and those are often the places that I find myself going to.
What has the response to your project been like from colleagues and former law school classmates?
I have been lucky to have had a positive response over this past year. I have met some amazing lawyers who are doing incredible work, and it has been extremely re-energizing to collaborate with them. I think in order to do pro bono-focused work for the long haul, there needs to be a long-term community of kindred spirits. My colleagues and former classmates are truly all over the United States, so it is all the more exciting when I land in a new place and get to reconnect with those I haven’t seen in a while and meet more like-minded people.
Is it challenging to approach such complex areas as immigration and tribal law? What is most essential to enabling you to handle these matters?
Yes, these areas of law can certainly get unwieldy. I think what’s most essential is having an open mind and an eagerness to learn. The work experiences have been building upon each other—one detention center’s experience funnels into the next one. And I have been very lucky and thrilled to be working with so many legal experts in the field—it has been a fantastic way to connect with those who are leading the way and to learn directly from them.
What has been most unique about your experience in Texas compared with the other locations you’ve worked?
I have so much to say about my experiences at the family detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City, which can be read about on my blog. Overall, I have been struck by how much of a difference a lawyer can make by coming here for just a short time. In one week, you can potentially meet with dozens of asylum seekers and prep them for their initial asylum interviews, represent clients in court, and truly impact someone’s life. The pace of the work here and the urgency of it has been unparalleled so far, and there are hundreds if not thousands of women at any given time who urgently need counsel and assistance.
Tell us about a moment from your trip that sticks with you the most.
For me, there have been a number of moments where the personal and professional intersect—and those are among the most memorable. When I was volunteering at the Dilley family detention center, I was able to secure the minimum bond needed for a young Honduran woman and her 4-year-old son—both were present for the hearing. My client was aiming to be reunited with her mother who lives in a suburb outside of Boston—and I am originally from that area.
In fact, I saw her mother’s address on her Massachusetts driver’s license and actually had driven on the street where her mother lives a number of times. I told my client that I was from the Boston area and that it was a beautiful place. My client said she was hoping she and her young son would be able to go to Boston and be reunited with her mother after experiencing numerous gang threats and violence in Honduras—to start a new life.
After her bond was secured, I turned to my client and said, “Bienvenidos a Massachusetts.” I have never been more excited to welcome someone back home. I’ll never forget it.
What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned about the practice of law?
I’ve learned that it is a big privilege to be a lawyer. There is an amount of leverage that an attorney can contribute to an individual or systemic situation. And with this privilege comes great responsibility—not only to provide quality legal representation but also to seek out those opportunities in order to do so. And that the most effective attorney-client relationship is a lateral one.
Many lawyers realize the importance of pro bono but struggle to find a way to do it, whether due to lack of finances or time. How do you think we can solve the low rates of pro bono participation?
I think that as a profession, we need to think about what we are all really upholding—and where we can step in and really make an impact on people’s lives. I applaud the firms and organizations out there that make space for their attorneys to participate in more pro bono activities. I think it has to start as a discussion about pro bono work being an essential part of the profession, and employers creating essential time in order to do so.
As for money, I think there can be creative ways to address that. Whether it’s crowdfunding, seeking a grant, or partnering with other like-minded organizations—I think it’s an exciting time to get out there and do more pro bono work. I have been very fortunate to be crowdfunded for my legal work, and that funding stream has allowed me to develop this unique legal model. Being a lawyer that is funded by the people for the people has been one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences of my entire life.