The State Bar of Texas, the Texas Access to Justice Commission, the American Bar Association, and others proudly support National Pro Bono Celebration Week (October 22-28). Pro Bono week is an opportunity to educate the public about the good work the legal community does to improve the lives of vulnerable Texans and to encourage more individuals to get involved in pro bono support of the legal system. During the week we will feature stories of pro bono volunteers.
Stephen Rispoli, assistant dean of Student Affairs and Pro Bono Programs at Baylor Law SchoolAs the assistant dean of Student Affairs and Pro Bono Programs, Rispoli spends a great deal of his time preparing students to become competent, ethical, and successful lawyers. An integral part of the school’s mission is service, and Rispoli has worked tirelessly to enhance the school’s pro bono offerings, enriching students’ experiences and helping veterans and the community at large.
What kind of pro bono do you do and how long have you been doing it?
As the assistant dean of Pro Bono Programs at Baylor Law, I am involved in the pro bono projects that faculty, staff, and students are undertaking at the law school. I get to work with my colleagues and law students to create new opportunities to serve the unserved and improve ongoing projects. Since graduating from Baylor Law, I also try to keep one to two pro bono cases on my to-do list at all times. The cases I’ll take usually involve property (real or personal) disputes, but I’ll sometimes take a case outside of my wheelhouse, like an expunction case or simple estate planning.
Why is pro bono important to you?
Our country is founded upon the rule of law—the principle that any American can turn to the courts to peacefully resolve disputes. Keeping this principle in mind, the access to justice gap—the inability, or perceived inability, of low- and middle-income Americans to afford lawyers—in the United States is particularly troubling to me. The 2016 American Bar Association Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United Statesfound that 100 million low- and middle-income Americans cannot afford legal representation for “basic human needs.” In Texas alone, nearly 5.3 million people qualify for legal aid. (Access to Justice Facts, Tex. Access Just.) Out of all those that qualify, only 178,000 Texas families are assisted by a legal aid organization. (Id.) Without the assistance of a lawyer, pro se litigants must navigate the complex and confusing legal system on their own. Although pro bono alone will not be able to fix the issue, it is a significant step in the right direction.
What have you learned from doing pro bono?
In addition to learning new areas of the law, I have learned a great deal about people through pro bono work.
What would you say to an attorney who is thinking about doing pro bono for the first time?
Take a case—I think you’ll find it rewarding. Most clients who need a pro bono lawyer are extremely grateful for the help that they would otherwise not be receiving. It is tremendously rewarding to help that client through a very difficult time in his or her life. The State Bar of Texas is making it easier for attorneys to do pro bono work, and I hope more attorneys will participate in programs like Texas Legal Answers.
Share one of your favorite pro bono success stories.
The most rewarding case involved a disabled veteran who was in jeopardy of losing his home to foreclosure. He was elderly and bound to a wheelchair. An unscrupulous contractor came by his house and offered to renovate his bathroom. The deal asked for little money up front but included a high total cost for the renovation and a high-interest rate payment plan. My client, no doubt excited about getting part of his house fixed up, signed the paperwork at his kitchen table. When my client couldn’t afford the high-interest payment plan for the shoddy work (the bathroom was falling apart months later), the contractor began the foreclosure proceeding. We figured out that they had not properly complied with the Texas Constitution, and we were able to stop the suit. As a result, our client was able to keep his house. He was elated. It was the house he had grown up in—and if we had not won that case, he would have had nowhere to go.