Why Pro Bono?

By Rachel Royal

The first time I heard the term “pro bono” was in the 2001 movie, “I Am Sam.” Sean Penn played a single father with a learning disability who was fighting to retain parental rights of his 7-year-old daughter, played by Dakota Fanning, after her mother abandoned them. The attorney who takes on his case pro bono is played by Michelle Pfeiffer. I remember thinking what a cool concept it was that an attorney would do all of that work for free, especially for a cause so important as keeping a family together. I realized just how critical comprehending and understanding the law is during my husband’s and my personal experience with obtaining temporary custody of his niece and nephew. Unfortunately, gaining that knowledge on your own is costly, time-consuming, and can be very frustrating if you do not have the education or the means to obtain it.

Since becoming a paralegal, I have found that many people are unaware that they need legal services, while others may abuse the legal system. Advice-only pro bono services can help unclog the court system by providing clarification to a situation as to whether legal services are actually warranted. Because many attorneys charge a consultation fee, people are often reluctant to seek legal advice and may end up in a worse situation. By offering free advice clinics and programs like Free Legal Answers, 4ALL Statewide Service Day, and Lawyer on the Line, members of the public are able to have their situation evaluated by an attorney, or in some cases, a paralegal under the supervision of an attorney, for free. People can then determine whether they should seek paid services or if they qualify for free or reduced-cost assistance.

Part of being a paralegal is having  friends and family ask us for legal advice. While navigating those situations can be tricky because we want to help those in our inner circle, we have to make it clear that we are bound by a code of ethics that prohibits us from offering legal advice. Though we cannot offer a legal opinion, I believe it is important to be informed of the legal resources to which we can refer our friends and family, as well as the general public. Being involved with the North Carolina Bar Association Paralegal Division is an invaluable way to network with other legal professionals. It also offers an ability to stay in-the-know on current programs and opportunities for pro bono resources.

When I first realized a few years ago that there were volunteer opportunities for paralegals, I was ecstatic. I currently co-chair, with S.M. Kernodle-Hodges, the Paralegal Division Pro Bono Committee, where I have served since February 2018. Since taking on the role of Co-Chair, I have learned of many opportunities for legal staff than I ever knew were available. Following are just a few with descriptions for each:

  • Wills for Heroes – (NC Bar Foundation) – Paralegals, legal assistants, and paralegal students can volunteer to assist with check-in, printing, and as Notaries Public;

  • Legal on the Line – (formerly, Lawyer on the Line – Paralegal Program) (NCBA Paralegal Division through Legal Aid of NC) – North Carolina State Bar Certified Paralegals and Meredith College paralegal students (no other students). Volunteers receive Legal Aid referrals under the remote supervision of an attorney to provide advice only to clients with regard to bankruptcy, landlord/tenant issues, and expunction (there will be additional types of law once this project is out of the pilot phase);

  • High School Mock Trial Competitions – (Carolina Center for Civic Education) – Paralegals, legal assistants, and paralegal students can volunteer as Site Coordinator, Scoring Director, and to assist with check-in;

  • Lawyers for Literacy – (NC Bar Foundation) – Paralegals, legal assistants, and paralegal students can volunteer their time to read to students (the Paralegal Division is in the process of getting involved with this opportunity and will provide more information in the near future); and,

  • Other ongoing and one-time opportunities through the NC Pro Bono Resource Center, Legal Aid of North Carolina, and local community efforts, such as FEMA clinics, and expungement clinics.

In February 2017, I participated in a Wills for Heroes event in Wilmington, notarizing wills and Power of Attorney documents after they were drafted on site by attorneys. I enjoyed being able to connect with first responders and learn a bit about their jobs and lives during the notarization and check-out process. I also volunteered in February 2019 for the Wilmington Regional Mock Trial Competition as the Scoring Director. I was excited to be able to sit in on a couple of the rounds and hear the talent and intelligence of the competing students.

Additionally, after Hurricane Florence I volunteered for the Disaster Legal Services Hotline and one Disaster Recovery Services Center shift, as well as two FEMA Appeals clinics. The primary role of paralegals was to gather information from clients either over the phone or in person about the damage sustained during the storm and ensuing issues with insurance, FEMA, housing, and/or landlords. However, my personal role at the in-person FEMA clinics was slightly different, as the project managers asked me to handle coordination of paralegal volunteers with regard to check-in, intakes, and check-out. Since I live in one of the areas that was hit hardest by Hurricane Florence, these disaster clinics were my favorite volunteer opportunities so far. I knew that after the storm that I wanted to do something to help, and I was so happy that I was able to use my legal education and experience to assist. Each clinic has serviced upward of 50 clients, and the amount of positive feedback has been astounding.

Past Paralegal Division Chair and PD Pro Bono Committee Chair  Annette Phelps initiated a partnership between the Paralegal Division and Legal Aid of North Carolina for a project called Lawyer on the Line – Paralegal Program.  While Legal Aid has overseen the attorney version of Lawyer on the Line for over five years, this newer project’s distinction is that paralegals do the bulk of the work. North Carolina Certified Paralegals and paralegal students enrolled at Meredith College are eligible to participate. Once onboarded as Legal Aid volunteers, they are paired with a supervising attorney through Legal Aid and referred a case. All of the volunteer work for this program, including any training provided by Legal Aid, is carried out remotely. Paralegals gather facts from the client over the phone, speak with the supervisor, and perform research as directed by the attorney. After researching the issue, paralegals will then report their findings to the attorney and subsequently relay attorney-approved advice to the client by phone. Cases are expected to take approximately 2 weeks, with an average of 3-6 hours input by the paralegal and 2-4 hours by the attorney. Malpractice insurance is provided by Legal Aid to all volunteers and by the North Carolina Bar Association to volunteers who are members. Additional information about this project is available in the slideshow found here.

Thanks to Annette’s hard work and persistence, the Committee officially launched a pilot program of this project at the end of 2018. We currently have one attorney and 11 paralegals who are in the process of receiving their first referrals from Legal Aid. I believe that this project has the potential to be a huge success across the state. Since paralegals will do the bulk of the work, and attorneys can supervise up to 10 advice cases (one paralegal per case), I believe we can meet even greater needs than ever before in North Carolina. In an effort to distinguish this project from the existing Lawyer on the Line, this program is being renamed “Legal on the Line.”

I believe that participating in pro bono work or any community volunteering, for that matter, will only lend further good publicity to the legal field as a whole. If you are a legal assistant, paralegal, or paralegal student who would like to volunteer your time but are not sure how or have limited time to commit, please feel free to reach out to me directly at rachelroyalnccp@gmail.com.

See below for current paralegal volunteer opportunities. Stay tuned for changes to the Paralegal Division website where new opportunities will soon be posted!

FEMA Appeals Clinic, March 6, 2019, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. – Jones County, NC – Sign up form link here.

Wills for Heroes Clinic – Duke School of Law, March 9 from 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sign up form link here. (only notary spots left)

Wills for Heroes clinic – Campbell Law School, March 16 from 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sign up form link here. (only notary spots left)

Legal on the Line – Ongoing project partnership with Legal Aid. Requires attorney supervision.

For attorney sign up link click here.

For paralegal sign up link click here.

Rachel Royal is a State Bar Certified Paralegal for the Wilmington City Attorney’s office. She currently supports the two attorneys who handle city Police, Fire, Litigation, and Employment. She lives in Hampstead, NC with her husband Reuben, and their children, Phoenix, and Christian. Mrs. Royal grew up in the Appalachian Mountains and enjoys reading, writing, cooking, music, weightlifting, outdoor activities, and volunteering at church. She graduated with honors from Carteret Community College in May 2017 as the recipient of the Paralegal Technology Graduate of the Year Award. She has been involved with the Paralegal Division since 2015 as a student member, won the NCBA Paralegal Student scholarship in 2016, and has been a Council Member and Pro Bono Co-Chair since May 2018. Mrs. Royal’s goal as a division member is to inspire paralegals to feel pride in their career and promote involvement in pro bono services across the state.