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.
Marlene Dougherty is a solo practitioner in Brownsville.
What kind of pro bono do you do and how long have you been doing it?
In 2001, I had to take a medical leave for a year and a half, and when I returned to practice, I took my first pro bono case assisting a probate judge with his client’s bankruptcy filings in Connecticut.
I also attended a CLE put on by the Connecticut Bar Association on farm workers’ rights, which led me to study immigration law. Prior to that I had only experienced immigration law from a law enforcement perspective, e.g., assignment to assist in locating undocumented workers who had fled from a worksite raid.
In 2003, on a personal level, a waitress, who served me lunch several times a week and managed the restaurant in her employer’s absence, eventually shared her immigration history and the abuse she experienced by her employer. I encouraged her to report it, but she would not.
Later that year, I relocated to South Texas in search of a warmer climate—I sure found it—and a place where I could begin the practice of immigration law. Brownsville seemed ideal as it was close to the federal district court and two immigration courts. I soon learned what it meant to practice in an area where the poverty level is one of the highest in the U.S. Because my Spanish skills were deficient, I did not apply for a position with a nonprofit as all required fluency in Spanish—my vocabulary was limited to about five words. When I opened my practice, I paid my assistant to translate for me, taking twice as long to gather even the basic facts. Later, I was surprised to learn that even some local nonprofit agencies charged more than I did for services—low bono has been my model from the outset.
My first pro bono cases were through CLINIC, a Catholic Legal Immigration Network, for cases needing legal representation at the Board of Immigration Appeals. Later, I stopped accepting pro bono through organizations as the majority of my clients were impoverished and I tended to their immigration needs.
From 2008 to 2012, I served on the American Immigration Lawyers’ Consumer Protection and Authorized Practice of Law Committee. I took on the duty for the committee to revise draft legislation for the protection of immigrants, seeking an expansion to protective statutes and criminal penalties for the unauthorized practice of immigration law. Most recently, I submitted a proposal for the revision of immigration jurisdictional statues to U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s office—seeking an independent immigration court separate from the U.S. Department of Justice..
Immigration law is not simply filing forms. Knowledge of the correct law to apply to the facts of a case takes a certain legal skill. The ever-changing policies of the various immigration agencies and the federal circuit courts of appeals’ interpretations, which apply to each circuit’s jurisdiction, makes immigration appellate work particularly mind-boggling.
Why is pro bono important to you?
In my practice, I have found that many undocumented immigrants are repeatedly exploited by people in the community who want low-cost employees, unauthorized practitioners who line their pockets by advancing false hopes, and unscrupulous or negligent attorneys. My practice has evolved to reviewing complex factual and legal issues in these types of cases.
What would you say to an attorney who is thinking about doing pro bono for the first time?
Pro bono is extremely rewarding. Should you be a new attorney considering doing pro bono work, I encourage you to do so. However, I also encourage you to do so in a manner that will enable you to become financially successful. Be sure that you plan according to your lifestyle goals.
Success takes many forms; I hope that you find yours.