With Abundant Population Comes Abundant Need: Metropolitan-Area Attorneys Are Answering The Call
More than half of North Carolina’s citizens reside in the state’s three largest metropolitan statistical areas, commonly known as the Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point), the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) and the Charlotte area (Charlotte, Concord, Gastonia).
Numbering well over six million residents, these areas are home to the state’s largest universities and many of its most successful businesses and industries. As these areas continue to grow and prosper, the unmet legal needs of their poorest citizens also continue to grow.
The fifth edition of the North Carolina Pro Bono Honor Society, announced earlier this year by the N.C. Pro Bono Resource Center, was filled with the names of North Carolina lawyers who stepped forward last year to provide pro bono legal assistance in the state’s largest cities and surrounding towns.
And nearly three-fourths of the lawyers recognized in the Pro Bono Honor Society are members of the North Carolina Bar Association, including Gagan Gupta of Paynter Law in Raleigh.
“Lawyering, and public service more generally, are the spaces where we debate our values and visions for a stronger collective future,” Gupta said. “Lawyers have a unique skill set that means we can and should weigh into shaping that future, and pro bono legal services provide a critical opportunity for us to do just that.”
Gupta primarily represents policyholders in insurance coverage disputes, and like many attorneys, his pro bono service is vastly different from his regular practice.
“In my pro bono practice,” Gupta said, “I represent children in Guardian ad Litem appellate proceedings, and I am engaged in an effort to help the NAACP, together with community leaders, remove Confederate monuments from outside courthouses across North Carolina, including in Gaston County, where I was raised.”
In a similar vein to Gupta, pro bono service represents a departure from the norm for Allison Standard Constance, who serves as Director of Pro Bono Initiatives for the UNC School of Law.
“As someone who isn’t traditionally practicing law every day, but instead working with law students, it is important for me to model through my own actions the commitment to serving others that I encourage from students,” Constance said. “With the enormous need for legal services in our state, it is our obligation to use the skills that we have as lawyers and law students to help others.”
Over the past year, her pro bono work has included representing people in parole hearings who were convicted as juveniles, staffing the North Carolina Bar Foundation’s COVID-19 Legal Hotline, answering calls for Election Protection, responding to NC Free Legal Answers questions, and doing Driver’s License Restoration work.
“While the direct client representation I do in parole hearings is the most meaningful because it allows me to build a connection with a client and potentially help them over a challenging hurdle,” Constance said, “the shorter projects are also so meaningful. Being able to point someone in the right direction in only a few minutes or helping them find the answer to their legal issue shows the value of how even a short amount of a legal professional’s time can make an impact on someone’s life.”
Phyllis Lile-King of Lile-King Law in Greensboro believes the importance of pro bono work is obvious: most ordinary people cannot afford lawyers.
“And without pro bono work,” Lile-King said, “clients with small cases often will not be compensated. We should strive for a legal system where even the poor can get justice. Most lawyers I know cannot take cases where the damages are less than $25,000.
“Lawyers cannot make a profit representing an undocumented person in a case where an employer failed to pay $2,000 in wages. But $2,000.00 is a huge sum for people living on the edge. Poverty, racism and discrimination are systemic problems that lawyers can help address through pro bono service.”
Lile-King described a recent pro bono case involving a young woman who was stopped at an intersection and struck by a car moving at 25 to 35 miles an hour. The victim suffered a disabling traumatic brain injury that prevents her from returning to professional work. The defendant had only minimum limits, and while her client had underinsured motorist coverage, the case would never compensate her for her losses.
“In cases like this,” Lile-King said, “I work pro bono because these families are really in dire straits financially. I appreciate that I share time with my clients and their families and am privy to intimate information such as my client’s limitations and fears and the family’s financial stresses. It is motivating for me, professionally to believe in my clients, and not only want to provide competent representation, but to help them by doing the very best I can for them.
“As a plaintiff’s-side lawyer, for most of my career, I have been blessed with the ability to choose my clients. You cannot help but develop relationships with these folks, that are often lifelong. The biggest reward is knowing (and often hearing) that I was there for a child or family during a really stressful time, and that I made a difference for them. My legal practice fulfills the career goals I had when I applied to law school.”
Amanda Reed operates The Law Office of Amanda M. Reed in Concord, but she has been involved in pro bono work since law school.
“It was really the Wills for Heroes program that ignited my passion for estate planning,” Reed said. “I’ve since come full circle from my law school volunteer days and hope to complete training as a lead attorney for the Wills for Heroes program in the near future. In estate planning, it’s easy to find pro bono opportunities – sometimes the people who need these documents the most are the ones who can’t afford them.”
Reed recalled one particular act of pro bono service that will stick with her for the rest of her life. Last December, Officer Jason Shuping of the Concord Police Department suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the chest. Shuping, only 25 years of age, left behind a young widow.
“His line-of-duty death was senseless and tragic and hit especially close to home for me,” Reed said, “not only because Concord is our community, but because Officer Shuping and all the men and woman in blue are part of our extended family – my husband is a Concord City Police Officer. Being woken to that call at one in the morning is something you never expect, and while I was grateful that it was not my husband that had been killed, it was someone’s husband.”
Over the course of the next few days, as funeral arrangements were made, meals were provided for the grieving family and Concord mourned this tremendous loss, Reed knew that she needed to help.
“I comfort others through service and at the time, the only thing I could think to provide was my knowledge,” Reed said. “I immediately asked my husband to put me in contact with someone at the police department so that I could make sure that Jason’s spouse, Haylee, knew that I was available and at her disposal should she need help with Jason’s estate. I was honored – and relieved – when she called accepting my offer to administer Jason’s estate free of charge. Providing this pro bono service to his grieving spouse, who was very much thrown into the public eye, was the least I could do. “
From this tragic loss, Reed concluded, her relationship with the Concord Police Department and respect for first responders in general has continued to grow, as has her commitment to pro bono service.
“Our office sponsored our first Estate Planning Clinic, similar to Wills for Heroes, for the men and woman of the Concord PD,” Reed said, “and we hope to expand our clinic to other first responders in our area in the months and years to come.
“Providing pro bono services means giving back to the community. The majority of our firm’s pro bono hours for 2020 and 2021 will come from providing free or reduced cost estate planning documents and estate administration services to the local first responders. Giving back in such a significant way makes a huge difference to the individuals who sacrifice so much serving and protecting our community.”
Ayeshinaye Smith, who serves as managing partner for Smith Dominguez, PLLC, of Raleigh, believes that pro bono service, much like her calling to become a lawyer, all ties back to one thing – helping people.
“As a lawyer and citizen,” Smith said, “I feel that it is important to provide pro bono legal service because we all have times when we need help. Ultimately, I went to law school to help people with difficult issues. Money should not be a barrier to receiving legal advice and support.”
Smith’s activities include participation in Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Lawyer on the Line program, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, and pro bono representation of clients who could not afford legal fees.
“I truly found all of the activities to be meaningful,” Smith said. “I think that the Lawyer on the Line cases were the most enjoyable. Each case was very different and some of them were outside of my regular practice. Those clients were very appreciative and some followed up with good news down the line.”
Alyssa Levine of Alyssa Levine Law in Charlotte has also volunteered with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Lawyer on the Line program in the past, and this year has already provided pro bono assistance in a private domestic violence case.
“I find all of my pro bono work meaningful,” Levine said. “Helping clients expunge their criminal records means they will have more (or finally SOME) opportunities for housing and employment. So many of them crave independence and self-sufficiency yet their past too often overshadows their hard work and dreams. And helping a domestic violence victim obtain a protective order means they can live for up to a year knowing that if their perpetrator violates the order then he or she can be punished criminally.”
Law licenses, she added, afford attorneys with incredible power to help others.
“I think we must use that power to make positive change whenever possible,” Levine said. “ A few hours in a single month over the phone and through email, sometimes a few hours in court, can change a person’s – sometimes an entire family’s – life. How can we not help our community in every way possible. We all benefit from a healthy and safe community.”
Matthew H. Crow of the Crow Law Firm in Monroe credits Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy for providing him with opportunities to give back throughout his legal career.
“It’s been such a great partnership with both organizations,” Crow said, “and I’ll take on as many consumer bankruptcy cases as they can give me. They do such a great job of screening prospective clients, organizing the data, then letting me take over and every client is so appreciative and cooperative. Helping people is enjoyable.”
And rewarding, Crow added.
“I love the slogan. ‘Access to Justice for All,’ Unfortunately, filing for bankruptcy is expensive. The court’s filing fee is over $300 and upfront attorney’s fees are most often two to three times that amount, so plenty of people who need consumer protection are denied their justice strictly due to costs. That’s not right and I feel a great sense of duty to give back.
“In addition, my educational background before law school was in middle school education, so I got to witness the vast reach of poverty on children up close as a middle school math teacher. For lots of students, learning pre-algebra is hard enough without the worries of eviction, hunger at home, repossession of their parents’ cars, or even the absence of parents from their lives since the parents have to work two jobs.
“Once a teacher, always a teacher, so I want to help children by helping and teaching their parents. When I have the opportunity to assist a client with a young family, I’m extra motivated since I am hopefully making lives better for the entire family.”
Crow comes by his commitment to pro bono service naturally. His father and fellow attorney Harry Crow Jr., with whom he is pictured above, served on the board of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, the forerunner to Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, and worked closely with its longtime executive director, Ken Schorr. So it was especially meaningful to the younger Crow when he received the organization’s pro bono award from Schorr in 2018.
“It was quite special since I consider it to be a ‘team’ or ‘family’ award,” Crow said. “My father committed over 50 years of his legal career to giving back to our community and to our profession, and his numerous examples inspire me to continue his legacy of service.
“As with all small law firms, it is all about teamwork and having a solid support and foundation in place so that I can be committed to providing sustained pro bono service. Although I may get the individual credit, I certainly didn’t make the Pro Bono Honor Society on my own. The Honor Society is a marathon and not a five-kilometer dash.
“You have to have support to complete the marathon!”
Russell Rawlings is director of external affairs and communications for the North Carolina Bar Association.