The Pro Bono Experience

Just over a year ago, the coronavirus pandemic changed many facets of life as we allbeddow_sunny_1 know it. For the legal community, that meant pro bono work rapidly changed in scope, scale, and delivery. Here, Ballard Spahr associates Sonja “Sunny” Beddow and Sarah Dannecker spoke about how their pro bono work has adapted and what they see for the near future of pro bono work as a whole.

Sarah Dannecker: You’ve handled pro bono work for several years now. How have you seen it change due to the coronavirus pandemic?
                                                                                                    Sunny Beddow
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Sunny Beddow
: It’s obvious to state, but the biggest change is that everything has gone virtual. All of my interactions with clients now are either by phone or by video, for the most part. I’ve met a few pro bono clients in-person, but even that is different—it’s different to have to meet outside and wear a mask.

                                                                                             Sarah Dannecker
Saying it’s “different” doesn’t mean it’s all bad, though. I represent two separate clients in the foster care system, so we have a review hearing every 90 days. It took the court a little while to get off the ground with virtual things, so we had status conferences via written submission for a few months. Virtual court hearings certainly have their downsides—there are technology issues at times, and they’re not nearly as personal—but in some ways, it has been nice. With one of my clients, it would have been much more challenging to have him come in person. It’s a very intimidating process for a 13-year-old, so to have to avoid the formality of an in-person hearing has actually been good for him.

I also do some conciliation court refereeing for Dakota County. That is also virtual, and the biggest struggle with that has been that it took time to get things up and running virtually, and so there’s a backlog. That’s been a stressor for the court.

How about you? Have you seen issues in your pro bono practice?

Sarah: I definitely can relate to some of the challenges. I’m currently representing a client with an eviction expungement, and right now, we don’t know if the hearing will be in person or virtual. Either way, it will be a new experience for me, so it’s been a little harder to prepare. I’m also helping a nonprofit corporation shift from a 501(c)(7) to a 501(c)(3). They needed to hold a virtual meeting and had never done that before, so they leaned on me for advice in that regard. It was a challenge we had to work through together.

Have you noticed the clients needing pro bono assistance changing, the work itself changing, or both?

Sunny: I think definitely both. I worked with a small business client negotiating some rent abatements with their landlord, and they had a double whammy because their business is located on Lake Street and they had some damage from the protests last summer. And I know in the immigration world, there was a huge influx of work that came in when the pandemic began because it became critical to get people out of detention when they were at serious risk for contracting the virus. I know there were a lot of lawyers taking on cases to get parole requests, and a step beyond that, to due habeas corpus petitions. I represented a client who had been detained by ICE and his removal had been granted, but ICE was holding him in custody pending appeal. He’s HIV+, so he was at particular risk, and there were policy decisions and court opinions saying ICE needed to release people like him, but ICE hadn’t followed through.

We were able to get him released, which was potentially life-saving for him. I only did one of those, but I know there are so many more to do. I think a lot of attorneys who work in the housing sector are wondering what will happen when eviction moratoriums across the country are lifted. There’s a concern that the influx of eviction proceedings will overwhelm the volunteers and resources available.

When the pandemic first started, there was a slowdown in my practice area, and because Ballard Spahr is very supportive of pro bono work, I used a lot of that capacity to take on new matters. That lull is over, as I would guess it is in a lot of areas, so I wonder what’s going to happen as capacity tightens up again. The need isn’t lessening, but the support might be.

Sarah: That’s one of the reasons I enjoy pro bono work too, for sure. You can gain experience in a totally new practice area. In your experience, has it been more challenging to do pro bono work in a remote environment?

Sunny: It’s harder to create a bond with a client when you do everything virtually. For me, it’s been challenging with my Children’s Law Center clients and asylum clients. Those are attorney client relationships that really require the creation of connection and a relationship of trust, and it’s really hard to do that when you never interact with them in person. Even with virtual interactions, it’s hard to build rapport. I think it takes more time and a lot more concerted effort. Related to that, it’s challenging to have a difficult conversation with your clients if you need to do it virtually. It’s hard to say, “We know you want this result, but it isn’t something we’re going to get.” It’s hard to talk about that on the phone. You can’t gauge their emotional response and alter your follow-up. I have found that to be really challenging. I give all the credit in the world to all the pro bono clients I work with for being so adaptable. Even in really hard circumstances, they understand this is the reality of the situation and that we have to keep going.

Sarah: Do you think the help that attorneys can provide remotely is as effective? That is to say, has the coronavirus pandemic made providing pro bono assistance more difficult?

Sunny: I think it’s making pro bono assistance more difficult, for sure. Some forms of pro bono work lend themselves very well to remote assistance—like what you’ve done preparing corporate forms—but not all of them. Work representing individual people, for me, is harder to do remotely. I would also guess that, for types of pro bono provided in a clinic format, it’s a lot more challenging to be similarly effective.

Sarah: Do you think the shifts we’ve seen in the way pro bono work is handled and who needs it are likely to be permanent?

Sunny: I hope not. Eventually, lawyers and clients will go back to wanting to meet face-to-face and build the relationship that is so important in pro bono work. A lot of the clients we’re working with have never worked with a lawyer before. They have no concept of what the relationship is supposed to be, so you’re creating that. You need to show them how the relationship is meant to go. Face-to-face will never be replaced in that kind of situation.

That being said, the infrastructure we’re creating might help us innovate more. We’re figuring out virtual reach, and I can see that being a very effective tool for connecting with some underserved communities. For example, if we refine this virtual, remote-only process, it might be really useful for people in greater Minnesota who were difficult to reach before. That would be a very significant step for advancing access to justice.

What about you? Do you think your pro bono practice will stay similar or change back?

Sarah: I have a little bit of the pre-pandemic experience and a little bit of the post-pandemic experience. I have one client, a DACA recipient, whom I was able to meet in person. The client I am helping with the eviction expungement I have not yet met in person, and I hope to have that chance eventually. Once we’ve crossed the line and gone on to the other side of COVID, that’s something I really look forward to.

Sunny Beddow, a real estate associate, and Sarah Dannecker, a business and transactions associate, are both Gold members of Ballard Spahr’s Pro Bono Honor Roll, meaning they contributed 50 hours of pro bono service in 2020.