Note: This page features only a few of the main articles from our bar journal. COMMUNIQUÉ is printed and mailed to all CCBA members. An electronic version (PDF) of the full issue is available too.

Effective Management of Pro Bono Cases

By Erin Houston, Esq.

© 2014 This article was originally published in the printed magazine COMMUNIQUÉ, the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association. (January 2014, Vol. 35, No. 1). All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article, contact the publisher Clark County Bar Association, Attn: COMMUNIQUÉ Editor-in-Chief, 725 S. 8th St., Las Vegas, NV 89101. Phone: (702) 387-6011.

Most attorneys will represent a client on a pro bono basis at some point during their career. It goes without saying that pro bono representation provides an important service to the community. While pro bono representation can be very rewarding, it also presents unique challenges. These challenges can be better managed if you follow some of the tips for pro bono work outlined below.

Do you have the time?
Before accepting a pro bono case, it is extremely important to be honest with yourself about how much time you have to devote to a non-paying client. Do not over-extend yourself by taking a case that will require more time than you have to offer. If your caseload is heavy, you may not be able to provide the advocacy required for a complicated case.

Advocate zealously
Once you have accepted a pro bono case, you must treat it with the same importance as all of your other cases with paying clients. Do not make the mistake of allowing a pro bono case to be less important just because the client does not pay for your time. Not only is this unfair to your client, it can also lead to serious liability issues.

Meet early and often
Make a point of having a face-to-face meeting with your client before starting work on the case. This will give you both an opportunity to discuss your expectations of one another. As the attorney, you will have a chance to fully vet the issues at hand, while also clearly explaining the scope—and limits—of your representation.

Put it in writing
Before you start working on a pro bono case, have the client sign a retainer agreement that fully sets forth the issue for which you will be providing representation and the scope of said representation and that fully describes at what point your representation will terminate.

Seek assistance

You should not be afraid to ask for help. It’s common for a pro bono case to take an unexpected turn or to become much more complicated than appears on paper. If this happens, you should not hesitate to seek assistance from a seasoned attorney in that practice area. The best resource for finding guidance is to ask the organization from whom the case was placed. The pro bono coordinator should be able to locate an experienced mentor if a case goes beyond the scope of your experience.

Finally, you should not let your pro bono cases stagnate. Not only is it important for your client, it also limits your potential liability. When the matter is concluded with the court, you should remember to formally withdraw and send a letter informing the client of the same.

Erin Houston is an associate attorney at Goldsmith & Guymon, P.C., where she practices primarily in the areas of bankruptcy, domestic representation, guardianship proceedings, estate planning, and probate litigation. She was formerly a staff attorney at Nevada Legal Services.


Practice Tips for the Pro Bono Attorney Representing Abused/Neglected Children

By Julie Kruze, Esq.

© 2014 This article was originally published in the printed magazine COMMUNIQUÉ, the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association. (January 2014, Vol. 35, No. 1). All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article, contact the publisher Clark County Bar Association, Attn: COMMUNIQUÉ Editor-in-Chief, 725 S. 8th St., Las Vegas, NV 89101. Phone: (702) 387-6011.

An attorney representing a minor child in juvenile court serves as an advocate for the child’s preferred future custodial environment. However, discerning between the child’s preferences and obtaining a favorable result can pose a formidable challenge for one accustomed to adult clientele. An attorney must not confuse their own conclusions regarding the child’s best interests with the client’s actual preference. The designated Department of Family Service (DFS) caseworker, the presiding magistrate or judge, and, on occasion, a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) are each responsible for consideration of all relevant factors for the child’s placement. These practice tips are given to help an experienced practitioner with providing pro bono legal services on behalf of minor children.

Develop a strong attorney-client relationship
A client as young as five years old can express a preference and supporting rationale for returning to the care of an offending parent, seeking care from a favored relative, or electing for adoption within the foster family. An attorney should first assess and determine the client’s ability to communicate, which can be done by frequent, and somewhat brief, attorney-client meetings to learn the client’s language and help transition from a stranger to a trusted helper. The first meeting can start with small talk about siblings, favorite classes, or television shows. If communication is lacking with a younger client, an attorney should continue with more general discussion and re-assess every few weeks. Most clients assigned counsel demonstrate adequate language skills at the first meeting, so the attorney can inquire whether the client can identify the caseworker or other involved professionals. The attorney can contrast her role by explaining, “Between you and me, you are the boss and my role is to help you as much as I can.” Prior to substantive discussion, an attorney should gauge the client’s understanding of the process. For example, the attorney can ask, “Pop quiz, do you remember my name? Between you and me, who is the boss? What is my role?” The first meeting can be wrapped up with a few general, open-ended questions followed by time to allow for a response. Although allegations of abuse or neglect may be detailed in the petition, an attorney should avoid leading questions or questions requiring a yes or no response. After a few closely spaced meetings, an attorney should establish a regular schedule with the child client. The attorney should meet the client in person at least on a monthly basis, with supplemental telephone conferences, video conferences, or text messaging sessions.

Ascertain with reasonable certainty the client’s preference
An attorney should start discussion with the child client with open-ended questions about what long-term choices are available to the child. Once the client verbalizes his options, an attorney should prompt discussion about each option. Next, an attorney should have the client write down each option, such as the name of a parent or relative, on a separate card. An attorney should take caution to avoid expressing an opinion. The next step should be to inquire whether the client feels confident to order the cards from most preferred to least favored. Once the client is able to express a preference, at attorney should again inquire as to why one household is preferred over others. This process may end up taking place over the course of several meetings. Throughout this process, an attorney should also inquire whether the client has any other requests, such as visitation with a family member or the need for eyeglasses, braces, or other special assistance.

The court will likely encourage and support a child’s request to sustain meaningful relationships. In addition, DFS, the CASA office, and juvenile court each have discretionary funds available to satisfy various requests by the child. An attorney should periodically confirm the child client’s preference using the cards created for the initial meeting to establish preference. Finally, the attorney should confirm how much or how little information the client wants shared with others. Prepare and present arguments supporting your client’s preference.

A child and family team (CFT) meeting must be held every three months while the case is pending. In addition, a juvenile court status hearing will occur at least once every six months. The CFT includes the child, the child’s parents, foster parents, all attorneys, and the assigned DFS caseworker. The team may also include an occupational therapist, traditional therapist, or CASA when assigned. An attorney should make certain the entire team knows the client’s preference, as well as any supporting reasons for the preference. If the team is unable to reach agreement, an attorney should be prepared to argue before the court. While children rarely testify in court, a particular child may wish to speak with the judge, be present in court, or write a letter.

Ultimately, the entire purpose of an abused or neglected child’s attorney is to ensure that the child’s preference is understood and considered when the court decides the long-term custodial environment. The child’s preference is one of the most influential custodial factors. In fact, it is impossible for the court to make a decision without due consideration of the child’s preference. Although the court may not honor the child’s preference, the client’s voice will be heard.

Julie Kruze is an attorney with more than 12 years of experience. In addition to providing legal service to her clients, Ms. Kruze also believes in giving back to the community, as evidenced by the hundreds of hours of pro bono work performed on behalf of women and children. Julie has also had the privilege of serving as a teacher for exceptional children at Bonanza High School. Follow Julie on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JulieKruze.


Taking Pro Bono to the Next Level

By Anne R. Traum, Esq.

© 2014 This article was originally published in the printed magazine COMMUNIQUÉ, the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association. (January 2014, Vol. 35, No. 1). All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article, contact the publisher Clark County Bar Association, Attn: COMMUNIQUÉ Editor-in-Chief, 725 S. 8th St., Las Vegas, NV 89101. Phone: (702) 387-6011.

When Seth Floyd, an associate at MacDonald Carano Wilson in Las Vegas, had the opportunity to take a pro bono appeal last August, he leaped at the chance. Seth had added his name to a list of lawyers willing to accept pro bono appeals for indigent clients with a guarantee of oral argument before the Nevada Supreme Court. He took a family law case and, so far, the experience has been as rich as anticipated: “I have been exposed to every detail of an appeal, from the initial client meeting to compiling the appendix to brief-writing.” And he is looking forward to oral argument, the notch of experience among appellate litigators.

Nevada lawyers like Seth now have a new opportunity to handle pro bono appeals in the Nevada Supreme Court. This is because the court in 2013, under the leadership of then-Chief Justice Kristina Pickering, expanded its pro bono program to include more appeals and more lawyers. The Nevada Appellate Pro Bono Program provides the perfect opportunity for lawyers to develop appellate skills while serving a critical need.
For years, the court has appointed appellate experts to represent parties in cases that presented novel or thorny issues. The court has a staggering caseload with some 876 civil appeals cases filed last year. Because there is no constitutional right to appeal in civil cases, with an associated right to counsel, many litigants proceed without counsel and have little chance of framing important issues in the best light.

Under the new program, the Nevada Supreme Court increased the number of pro bono appointments and also guaranteed oral argument. When the court identifies a case in need of appointed counsel, the court refers the case to the Appellate Litigation Section’s Pro Bono Committee, which has partnered with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada (LACSN) to find volunteer attorneys. LACSN circulates an e-blast alerting attorneys that a new appeal is available, matches the client to the volunteer attorney, and provides legal malpractice insurance. As a statewide program, any admitted Nevada attorney can sign up to receive the e-blast alerts and volunteer to represent a client. You do not need to be experienced at handling appeals.

The formula is a win-win-win. Volunteers, who handle an appeal from start to finish, including guaranteed oral argument, gain valuable experience. For the litigants in need, the assistance of counsel on appeal is critical. And the court benefits from counseled briefing and argument, and the opportunity to enhance the appellate bar. In 2013, volunteer lawyers were appointed to assist in some twenty appeals on diverse matters, including family, employment, and civil rights law.

Neophytes can also volunteer. For some, the experience of handling a custody or inmate appeal may be new. For others, handling any appeal is uncharted territory. Ryan Daniels, newly barred in Nevada, had no appellate experience when he volunteered and “realized I would need a mentor to help me out.” The Appellate Litigation Section’s Pro Bono Committee, which seeks to provide mentoring to attorneys who request it, paired Ryan with Franny Forsman, a veteran appellate advocate with decades of experience. According to Ryan, Franny “helped me spot some issues, guide me in procedural matters, and understand how to interact with my client while he is in prison.” Ryan is “grateful for the opportunity to learn from such a skilled attorney.”

Gaining this kind of experience is just one lure of the program. Volunteers enjoy serving the client and the court, and welcome the opportunity to develop Nevada law. According to Seth Floyd, one perk is that “the Court picks meaningful, interesting cases for the program. By taking an appeal, I both improved my own skills and will potentially contribute to the development of Nevada law.”

It is easy to get involved. Interested attorneys should contact Anne Traum at anne.traum@unlv.edu, or Melanie Kushnir, the pro bono coordinator at Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, at mkushnir@lacsn.org.

Anne R. Traum is Associate Dean for Experiential Legal Education and Associate Professor of Law at the William S. Boyd School of Law, where she teaches Criminal Procedure, Federal Courts, and the Appellate Clinic. She chairs the Appellate Litigation Section’s Pro Bono Committee.