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 21-27). 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.
Pilar Martinez is from Seattle and is a 3L at St. Mary’s University School of Law. She is active in St. Mary’s pro bono program, acting as the student site coordinator for the monthly veterans legal advice clinic and the Community Justice Program. Martinez is also president of the Immigration Law Association and the vice president of the Public Interest Law Foundation. She serves on the editorial board of The Scholar. Martinez plans to practice immigration law at a nonprofit after graduation.
What kind of pro bono do you do and how long have you been doing it?
I got my first glimpse of pro bono in undergrad. I helped organize citizenship workshops for low-income immigrants. That work sparked my interest in law and specifically immigration law. I love doing pro bono work with immigrants and veterans. Recently, I think both groups have come under attack and are in need of assistance. Money should not inhibit these individuals from seeking counsel. I have been doing this work since 1L and hope to make a career of it upon graduation.
Why is pro bono important to you?
Growing up in a family of six, my parents worked hard to provide my brothers and me with life’s necessities. My passion for helping underrepresented indigent individuals stems from my upbringing and the legal struggles my family went through. When my family should have sought legal advice, we struggled in silence as we could not afford an attorney. I want to educate people on the resources available to them. Also, pro bono is important because the legal system is confusing. A lot of people who cannot afford an attorney attempt to take on the system by themselves, which may have damaging consequences for their cases. So in addition to being confusing, legal matters are expensive. I feel everyone deserves justice and not just those who can afford representation.
What have you learned from doing pro bono?
I have learned the need for pro bono is far greater than I thought. Legal aid resources are limited, and many requests for legal assistance go unanswered. There is a justice gap in our society and we, as law students and attorneys, need to help bridge that gap. I have also learned that the human spirit is strong. I have heard some horrible stories from clients struggling with their legal issues. These stories and the strength of these clients motivate me to keep fighting!
What would you say to a fellow student who is thinking about doing pro bono for the first time?
Pro bono is rewarding! You will learn so much, meet some amazing clients, and help these clients work through a stressful time in their lives. If you do not help these individuals, they may not get help anyplace else. As a human, if you have the ability to help someone, why would you not? And as an attorney, you are privileged and have a unique set of skills. You have a responsibility to use those skills to ensure everyone has access to justice.
Share one of your favorite pro bono success stories.
My first client fled his home country in West Africa after being targeted, jailed, and tortured on account of his race, nationality, and political opinion. I represented him in immigration court and he was awarded asylum. He thanked us profusely while tears streamed down his face. My own eyes teared up, and I struggled to maintain composure. After one year as an asylee, he can apply for adjustment of status. I hope to help him through that process as well.