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 24-30). 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.
Maddy Dwertman is a senior associate of Baker Botts in Austin.
What kind of pro bono do you do and how long have you been doing it?
I’ve been engaged with pro bono work since I started practicing law in 2014. My pro bono practice is largely focused on representing asylum seekers and other individuals seeking humanitarian protection in immigration court, as well as in appellate proceedings and before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In addition to direct representation, I’ve also assisted nonprofit legal service providers with drafting comments to several proposed regulations regarding the immigration system. The other piece of my pro bono practice is focused on transgender rights. I regularly assist members of the trans community with name and gender marker changes, and I am currently co-counsel in a federal court case challenging the constitutionality of a state statute that bars transgender people from correcting the gender marker on their birth certificates.
Why is pro bono important to you?
We have an acute access to justice crisis in this country that disproportionately impacts certain communities, including communities of color, immigrant communities, and LGBTQ communities, among others. As an attorney in private practice, pro bono has given me an opportunity to help address unmet legal needs in my local community and engage in meaningful advocacy work. Providing legal representation to transgender people and challenging laws that discriminate on the basis of gender identity are also particularly important to me as a trans and nonbinary attorney.
What have you learned from doing pro bono?
Time and again, I’ve learned the value and impact of legal representation. Although legal representation is but one of many potential interventions needed to close the access to justice gap, it has the capacity to mitigate power imbalances and enhance the fairness of legal proceedings. Pro se litigants face countless barriers in accessing and navigating our legal system, which both mirrors and produces structural inequities. The mere presence (or absence) of legal representation often affects how the merits of a case are perceived and evaluated, how parties are treated by courts and opposing counsel, and how legal disputes are adjudicated and resolved.
What would you say to an attorney who is thinking about doing pro bono for the first time?
There is a tremendous need for free legal services. In addition to being a fundamental professional obligation and part of the broader access to justice landscape, pro bono offers opportunities to develop and hone professional skills, cultivate partnerships with legal services organizations, and gain exposure to substantive aspects of the law outside the normal scope of your practice.
Share one of your favorite pro bono success stories.
I don’t have a single “favorite” success story. I’ve represented several trans asylum seekers who face unique challenges in the immigration system. The trans community (both in the United States and abroad) is disproportionately disciplined and violated, and trans experiences often exist at the margins of the historical record. The process of working with trans immigrants to develop their claims and to facilitate their sharing their personal experiences in court so that they are granted the legal protections to which they are entitled is particularly rewarding.