When I was a young pup I represented someone in a divorce as my first pro bono effort. I vowed never to do that again, because that sort of trial work was not for me, and I lacked knowledge in the area. So the question is what can an appellate person, with very specialized skills, do in the pro bono arena? The answer: a lot.
I touched on this topic in the May 23, 2008 posting, talking about the Kargar appeal, which began with a call from the Afghan embassy. My first pro bono appeal culminated in State v. Harper, 613 A.2d 945 (Me. 1992). That one came in from Jim Chute, the clerk of the SJC. There are other freebie SJC appeals I’ve done, arriving on my doorstep through different inquiries.
So there are lots of interesting appeals that you can do for free. They’re usually great learning experiences, and you can do follow up for other pro bono work your firm may be doing. For example, if any of our CASA cases (http://www.pierceatwood.com/about.asp?Page=Pro%20Bono) gets to the appeal stage, I’m available and have represented the guardian ad litem. Our immigration folks are doing great things on the refugee and asylum front (http://www.pierceatwood.com/showarea.asp?Show=20). If they ever lose, here I am.
Also, there’s lots of pro bono work that aren’t appeals, but that appellate-types can do. The seven years I spent on the Board of Bar Examiners involved, among other things, drafting and grading essay questions on various Maine law topics. Not only does that need some SJC case law expertise (you’d better really know what the law is, and that means looking at all the decisions on the subject), but I also learned a lot from the grading process to help me in my general brief writing. (You know how judges are always saying that the parties should be as concise as possible? And how you always thought that this message was for everyone but you, because you were just such a wonderful writer, and your appeals were so interesting? After having to read 200 essay answers at a time, I can tell you that I now understand what they are saying: shorter is better, period, no matter how great the writing or fascinating the topic might be.)
I’ve done state election recounts, sometimes with the associated argument before the court (for both Ds and Rs, thank you very much – I embrace diversity). The GLAD work we’re doing now (http://www.pierceatwood.com/shownews.asp?Show=190) is similarly interesting and can involve appellate skill sets. And while the work I did for a big chunk of time for USAID wasn’t strictly speaking pro bono (we got paid, but certainly not the usual going rate), it not only used some of those skill sets, but included some of the most interesting work I’ve ever done, involving some great people.
In sum, there are no excuses for an appellate-type not to get out there and do some pro bono. It’s easy to find, can be fun to do, you learn a lot — and oh yes, you get to help somebody who needs it, too.