When we asked Dan Gibson about the pro bono appeal he’s been successfully handling, one of the first things he did was give credit to others – his mentors, his colleagues, and his client.
Gibson’s humility is admirable. But it’s evident that Gibson’s passion for helping others and for appellate law took his advocacy to the next level. The case, Routten v. Routten, is a domestic law matter with heart-breaking facts; Gibson’s client is a mother who was denied custody and visitation rights with respect to her two children following trial. Gibson had agreed to accept court appointments through the North Carolina Appellate Pro Bono Program and took the case in the summer of 2018.
Upon receiving the assignment from the North Carolina Court of Appeals, Gibson, who has been practicing for four years, had a month to read an approximately 1,000-page record, draft a brief, and prepare for oral arguments in this custody case. This came at a time when he was a relatively new attorney, but also when his practice areas primarily included civil litigation and commercial real estate. He had to immerse himself into the Routten matter while also handling his usual caseload.
Gibson’s work paid off, resulting in a favorable ruling for his client in the Court of Appeals on the issue of parents’ constitutional rights over the care, custody, and control of their children and the limits of the “best interest of the child” legal standard, a complex domestic law issue. The opinion was filed in November 2018 and has been appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, where Gibson again briefed and argued the mother’s case; it was Gibson’s first N.C. Supreme Court appearance. The Court has not yet issued its ruling.
The people Gibson credits have surely played an important role in his successes thus far. He credited his client for being heavily involved and invested in her case – by the time he was appointed, she had done a significant amount of pro se work. He described her as one of the most engaged clients he had ever had. “I was amazed by how hard this mom fought,” he recalled. He also is appreciative of his law firm, the Stam Law Firm in Apex, and his former firm, Cary Law, for encouraging him in his pursuit. “I felt very supported,” he said, noting that his colleagues Paul (“Skip”) Stam and Lisa Schreiner attended the Supreme Court oral arguments. Gibson believes that these small firms were generous to allow an associate to put such a significant amount of time toward a pro bono matter.
But it’s clear that Gibson’s passion and hard work took this case to the next level – ultimately resulting in a favorable result for the client in the North Carolina Court of Appeals. He described the pro bono work as opportunity to “make good law and to make a difference in someone’s life.” Many pro bono cases involve helping people in need, Gibson said, but for him, it was also important to argue a valid legal issue and potentially impact the law in North Carolina. He added that he and his wife are expecting their first child and that knowing he would soon be a father added to his perspective in representing a mother in need. Bringing home a concrete reality for a fellow parent made it “all the more emotional and important,” he said.
Handling the case has also helped him gain valuable appellate practice experience – a goal for Gibson, who is also a member of the NCBA Appellate Practice Section and who hopes to continue building an appellate practice. Getting involved with the Appellate Pro Bono program can be a great way for other attorneys to do the same, he said. The program, which was established in 2018, is coordinated by the N.C. Court of Appeals’ Pro Bono Committee. Participants are required to complete CLE training, and cases and clients must meet standards including the client meeting the in forma pauperis standard and there being at least one non-frivolous issue for appeal.