Keeping the Fire Going

MSBA North Star Lawyers talk about pro bono service, commitment, and practice

The Minnesota State Bar Association launched North Star Lawyers, its first individual recognition program for members who provided 50 or more hours of pro bono service, in 2012. Since that time, the program has provided an opportunity for MSBA to recognize the many members who have been meeting the aspirational standards set in Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 6.1. 

Last year the MSBA recognized 934 members who certified they met the program requirements. These members provided over 110,500 hours of total service, with an estimated value of $27.6 million. I recently contacted a few of those 2018 North Star Lawyers in order to find out a little more about their pro bono work as well as their tips for incorporating pro bono into one’s practice. 

They included the following individuals:

  • Carole Pasternak, Klampe Law Firm, Rochester: Pasternak has been a licensed attorney since 1999. About 80 percent of her work is in family law, 20 percent in family immigration. She has been a partner since 2008 and serves on the board of Legal Assistance of Olmsted County.
  • Chris Pham, Fredrikson & Byron, PA, Minneapolis: Pham is a shareholder who works in his firm’s business litigation department and also co-chairs the firm’s sports & entertainment practice group.
  • Lauren Pockl, Briggs and Morgan, Minneapolis: Pockl is an associate in her firm’s energy group, where she focuses primarily on regulatory matters, as well as environmental and natural resource issues.
  • Tracy Podpeskar, Trenti Law Firm, Virginia: Podpeskar is a partner in her firm, where she focuses exclusively on family law and serves on the board of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern Minnesota.
  • Allison Woodbury, Stinson, LLP, Minneapolis: Woodbury has been a partner in her firm’s income tax practice since 2012 and does almost exclusively transactional practice, providing support to the firm’s corporate lawyers.

Why is pro bono service important to you?

Woodbury: “The number of unrepresented clients demonstrates that the answers are beyond the resources of non-profit organizations and government to fill.”

Podpeskar: “The need for representation can be seen in legal clinics where folks present a range of family law issues clearly beyond their capacity to address on their own in court. Even half an hour of service can make a difference in the success of a case.”

Pasternak: “Pro bono work is important because access to justice cannot be solely based upon one’s income. While one would be appointed a criminal defense attorney if one could not afford a private attorney, there are many other areas of law that impact a person’s life as dramatically as a criminal action.”

Pham: “Doing pro bono service is important to me because I believe in personal community responsibility, which I view as similar to corporate social responsibility. I grew up in a low-income, single-parent household in north Minneapolis, so I can relate to many of the obstacles and adversities that underrepresented individuals face on a regular basis.”

Pockl: “As a lawyer, I believe I have a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those that are unable to pay for those services, thereby providing services for the greater public good.”

How do you connect with pro bono opportunities?

Woodbury: “I want to take cases where the client has the greatest need. My firm’s Deinard Legal Clinic provides some of my case referrals, in addition to Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) and the Minnesota Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. I have worked on cases that are outside of my tax practice, in areas such as Social Security disability, consumer credit, and criminal expungements.“

Pham: “Given my upbringing, I have a soft spot for working with inner-city youth, so much of my pro bono work relates to serving that group, which includes, among other things, a pro bono class action lawsuit against St. Paul Public Schools; representing children in need of protective services through the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota; and volunteering at the YouthLink Legal Clinic.”

Pasternak: “Most of my pro bono work is through legal services groups—LAOC, SMRLS, and most recently, an asylum case I obtained through The Advocates for Human Rights.”

Podpeskar: “I only take referrals from my local provider—currently LASNEM, formerly the Volunteer Attorney Program—as I do not want to pick and choose between clients that come to me through my regular practice. I meet clients at a sponsored legal aid clinic for brief half-hour service and take some of them on as extended representation cases.”

Pockl: “I seek opportunities that align with the interests that I am not able to live out through my everyday professional work, like criminal matters, courtroom appearances, and various other areas and aspects of the law that interest me.”

How do you incorporate pro bono representation into your practice?

Pockl: “I make time to ensure that I am able to fully engage in the pro bono work that I perform as much as I make time to ensure that I fully engage with my day-to-day legal work. The relationships that I have built, the skills that I have harnessed, and the wide variety of legal areas that I have covered as a result of my pro bono work have all contributed to me being a better corporate attorney and firm employee.”

Pasternak: “I always have at least one full representation pro bono case on my active case list. I also provide short consultations for LAOC’s Family Law Clinics and Father’s Project—each is a 30-45-minute consultation. I believe that the clinic is not income based, just a signup. I serve on the LAOC board as the vice chair, and help with fundraising efforts to keep LAOC in the black.”

Podpeskar: “I treat every pro bono advice client like any other client. The local provider staff knows my limits and spreads out referrals. I have never felt burdened by referrals from legal aid and, occasionally, I will say no if I can’t handle the matter.”

Woodbury: “Consistency is the key. I always have something active in my pro bono caseload. It is a practice management skill to manage my workload. If I waited for the ‘right’ time to take a case, it would never happen and that time would be eaten up by other matters.”

Pham: “Two things: experience and networking. By doing pro bono work, I’ve gained significant experience in the courtroom and in front of certain judges/magistrates. And networking goes hand-in-hand with that experience—additional opportunities to meet lawyers, judges, and other professionals.”

What advice do you have for lawyers interested in, but not currently doing, pro bono service?

Pockl: “For those who are interested but concerned about time management, I would advise simply picking up a pro bono file in an area of law that is of interest to you. It does not need to be anything complex or time-consuming, but something that is meaningful. Experiencing firsthand that pro bono service can be performed alongside the daily demands of an attorney’s practice is important when deciding if or how much pro bono work to take on.”

Podpeskar: “Pro bono is a good opportunity for new lawyers starting out to get their feet wet and find out what they are interested in. Volunteer attorney programs can connect new lawyers to volunteer opportunities and provide support by connecting them to more experienced mentors. In greater Minnesota, relationships matter a lot and it’s hard to say no to someone you know in your community.”

Pasternak: “For those who may not be sure about pro bono, I would say take one case and see what a difference it makes. Most cases are not terribly time-consuming. And reaching the 50 hour pro bono annual hours is likely only 2-3 cases per year.”

Woodbury: “Find a lawyer you know who is active as a volunteer. Ask him or her how they choose activities, balance responsibilities in practice and got started. There are varying levels of commitment. The point is to get started and not put it off.”

Pham: “Just jump in! I know a lot of lawyers may be hesitant because the legal area may be unfamiliar, or if they’re transactional lawyers, then the hesitancy is because they’ve never been to court, have no experience ‘litigating,’ etc. But so much is learned through hands-on experience in any event, so jump in and keep in mind that although you may be inexperienced, nervous, and/or uncomfortable, imagine how the pro bono clients feel.”