Why pro bono?

By James Dimos

Like many referrals, this one came from an acquaintance. Mike was the patriarch of one of the more engaged families in our parish. The family’s giving of time, talent and treasure set an almost unreachable standard for generosity. And so when Mike came up to me after church one day while I was waiting for my kids to be dismissed from Sunday School and said, “Jim, I know you are a lawyer. I have a favor to ask of you,” I was more than willing to hear what Mike needed and to see if I could help, just like he had done for so many others.

One of Mike’s personal ministries was to visit with prisoners. Mike shared with me that during the course of his prison visits he befriended an inmate, George. Earlier in his life, George was not a nice man. His excesses led to a life of crime that caused his marriage to fall apart and his eventual imprisonment. As Mike explained the circumstances in detail to me, I began to try and figure out in my mind what the favor may be. Or, to be candid, I was trying to figure out how to say no to Mike, as it didn’t sound like I wanted to spend any time with George.

Mike went on to explain that George had an 8-year-old son from his marriage, he was entitled to visitation under the dissolution decree, and George’s ex-wife was not abiding by the decree. Mike asked whether I would be willing to represent George in enforcing the decree and compelling his ex-wife to permit the visitation.

Wow, that wasn’t what I expected, but, boy, I figured I could get out of it pretty easy. I am an IP and business litigator – I know nothing about family law. Yet, as I was beginning to give my brush-off speech, a funny thing happened. My son, who was about three years younger than George’s, walked up, pulled on my arm and said, “Let’s go, Dad.” I looked at my son and daughters who had joined him and thought for a moment, and the words tumbled out, “Yes, I will talk with George and see what I can do.”

And so I talked with George. And talked. And talked. As I quickly learned, prisoners enjoy the opportunity to interact with those on the outside. I learned that George’s ex-wife and son lived about four hours from where he was imprisoned. George’s ex-wife allowed their son to write George, read his letters and talk with him occasionally on the phone. She also allowed George’s parents to have contact with their grandchild. Given the distance involved, the age of their son and the fact that George was in jail, I thought that most judges would think that his ex-wife was being reasonable. However, despite my suggestion that we would likely not prevail, George insisted.

As it was summer, I asked one of our summer associates to research whether George’s ex-wife could be compelled to take their son to visit him in prison. It was an interesting research project for her, and she enjoyed the opportunity to work on a pro bono matter. As it turned out, despite my initial assessment, Indiana law would require George’s ex-wife to bring their son to prison to visit him. I filed our motion, scheduled and took a deposition of George (our request for George to be brought to the hearing to testify live was denied) and attended the hearing two hours away from Indianapolis.

George’s ex-wife and her lawyer attended the hearing. I made our arguments, and counsel for George’s ex-wife responded as anticipated. At the end of the hearing, the judge (who I suspect will read this article with a knowing smile) just looked at me and said, “I am surprised you found a case right on point. I will take the matter under advisement.” In the end, we prevailed, and George slipped out of my life.

About seven years later, I was at church, and a vaguely familiar face approached me. With him was a teenage boy who clearly was his son. As I struggled to remember who this familiar person was, he reached out his hand and said, “Hi, Jim – it’s George. I want to introduce you to my son.” The matter rushed back into my memory, jogged by the fact that George’s son reached out his hand, shook mine and said, “Thank you for letting me visit my dad.”

And so, why pro bono? Well, one could argue that lawyers have a state-sanctioned monopoly to represent others in legal matters and pro bono is part of the price of that monopoly. Or that the comments to our rules of professional conduct tell us that we “should” do it. Maybe it is because providing pro bono legal services will help make the operation of our legal system fairer and more efficient by providing counsel to “DIYers” or those of modest means. Or, perhaps, it is just because it makes the life of someone else better, and you feel good about helping that come about. Whatever the reason, just do it!

One comment on “Why pro bono?

  1. Theresa
    April 3, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

    Nice story. Thanks for sharing.


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