Increasing Access to Justice - A Corporate Counsel Perspective

Friday, October 27, 2017

UPDATE | By Pamela St. John, Assistant Vice President - Senior Legal Counsel, AT&T 

As we celebrate “National Pro Bono week” this month, and we see so many more people needing access to legal help, it is more important than ever to recommit ourselves to ensuring those who need civil legal help can actually get it. I learned over the years that besides (lack of) time, the main reason attorneys are reluctant to handle pro bono matters is their concern that they know nothing about [fill in the type of law]. I get it.


I remember my first pro bono case like it was yesterday. I was a young lawyer in Houston and went with a small group of attorneys from my commercial litigation law firm. I thought I was going to be fielding calls through a legal phone bank but quickly learned I was going to be handling a family law case. Even though I was a litigator, I didn't know anything about family law. 


So there I was. Out of my comfort zone (which is really not that foreign of a concept as a young lawyer). I ended up representing the nicest young woman who had a young child. My client desperately needed financial support. The case was complicated, not because of complex legal issues but because my client’s husband refused to agree to anything without the Court ordering him to do so. After numerous trips to the Courthouse it felt great to successfully resolve the case in my client’s favor. To see the impact that my law degree had in helping such a deserving person who otherwise had no means to avail herself of the justice system was powerful. I have felt this way with every pro bono client I have helped since.


Throughout my experience, I have also learned that civil legal aid organizations have knowledgeable and helpful mentors to guide us through whatever issues we don't know. Pro bono is a great foray into areas of law we don't typically handle in our day-to-day jobs. While most of us don’t readily embrace being stretched, it’s reassuring to know life-lines are available. 


Here at AT&T our pro bono program continues to flourish under our General Counsel, David McAtee. It is fascinating to see - and be part of - attorneys inspiring other attorneys to step out of their comfort zone to help people with their legal issues.  One of our Privacy attorneys recently won asylum for her client from Zimbabwe who was tortured by the ruling party officials.  Several of our Intellectual Property attorneys regularly counsel clients at a consumer law clinic with issues ranging from breach of contract to consumer debt issues. A number of attorneys with transactional practice areas regularly handle a variety of civil matters including immigration, family law, probate, and veterans’ issues.


What’s even more amazing is seeing how our willingness to help others has sparked a flame for increasing access to justice across our borders. In 2015, AT&T acquired a Mexico telecommunications company.  Since then, our Mexico colleagues started a pro bono program in Mexico City that teaches underrepresented and low-income women about legal and business concepts, which in turn is strengthening their community. 


My thoughts about increasing access to justice for those in need have not changed over the years. That is, as a profession we have been given a distinct privilege to be able to help those can't afford access to the courts. 


At the end of the day, when we look back over our careers I hope the highlights for all of us include the number of times we extended our reach and stepped out of our comfort zone to help others.