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.
Natalie Smeltzer Fortenberry, corporate associate in the Dallas office of Weil, Gotshal & MangesAs a corporate associate, Fortenberry focuses on complex corporate and transactional matters for private equity firms and public companies in connection with public and private acquisitions, divestitures, and investment transactions. She was selected as Weil’s 2014 Lend-A-Lawyer to the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, where she devoted a three-month period to representing indigent clients in a variety of contested matters.
What kind of pro bono do you do and how long have you been doing it?
I have handled a variety of pro bono matters, but primarily, I handle civil family law cases through DVAP. I have been doing pro bono as long as I have been licensed. In fact, after graduation from law school, I deferred my start date as a corporate associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges for one year to do pro bono work for two nonprofit organizations focused on development in Africa.
Why is pro bono important to you?
As attorneys, I believe we have a duty to those who cannot afford legal representation or do not have a voice of their own. We have a skill that we can easily use to give back. And it is very rewarding.
What have you learned from doing pro bono?
It has reminded me how fortunate I am to have been able to attend college and law school and become an attorney. And it has affirmed to me that I have a responsibility to give back to others by using my legal skills.
What would you say to an attorney who is thinking about doing pro bono for the first time?
You can do it. It may seem overwhelming at first, given all of the challenges and demands of the legal profession, but you do have the time to do it. I am a corporate attorney, and I regularly handle pro bono family law cases. DVAP provides incredible resources as do many of the other pro bono programs statewide. These resources make it very manageable to do pro bono work in an area of law that you may not normally practice.
Share one of your favorite pro bono success stories.
In 2011, I took on my first pro bono case with DVAP. It was custody case for a grandmother caring for her granddaughter. Throughout the case, I became close with the child’s aunt as well. After finalizing the case, and parting ways with my clients, I thought I would never see or hear from them again. Then in 2014, right before I was going to start as a Lend-A-Lawyer, the aunt called and asked if I could help with a custody modification. So I was able to represent the family again. After finishing the second case, the family said, “Natalie, you aren’t just our lawyer, you are our friend.” It really doesn’t get any better than that.