Sometimes, there is a baby in the room. A real one, usually in the arms of a nervous mother. Because it is Brooklyn, still as diverse a place as there is in the world, the baby might be black, brown, white or yellow. It does not matter. What matters is that there is a freaking baby in the room. I am blessed with four children, all ten and younger, and am the oldest of five, so I am not one of those people for whom children are curiosities best viewed at distance. Even so, there is something surreal about having a baby in the room while I am manning an office at the Brooklyn Family Court for a few hours once a month, trying to help a beleaguered parent make sense of the chaos inherent in their involvement in an adversarial proceeding involving their child. But I, like my fellow volunteers from in-house legal departments, Biglaw firms, and solo practices around New York City, soldier on. And come back, month after month, in the hopes of helping one more person deal with their (literally) intimate and emotional legal issues. In my case, I have been coming back since late 2006. I plan on continuing for as long as I have the strength and the program remains in place.
I am not looking for recognition. If this column motivates someone to dedicate themselves to a pro bono project that they can believe in, that would be great. To be honest, I did not even think about doing pro bono for many years, for all the typical reasons. I was still too junior, too busy, too unable to commit myself to a project that could potentially conflict with my billable matters. While I respected my fellow Biglaw associates who involved themselves in the usual Biglaw pro bono fare — e.g., asylum issues, wrongful convictions, and the like — I was never moved to action. But that changed in 2006, when Greenberg Traurig, in conjunction with some large corporations and other Biglaw firms, announced that it was partnering with the New York City Family Court to start a volunteer-attorney driven program to assist self-represented litigants trying to navigate the hectic, crowded, and extremely fast-paced Family Court system. A system that is challenging for even the most hardened attorneys, but where 95% of the litigants choose, mostly because of financial reasons, to go without a lawyer until one is provided for them. Put simply, help was (and continues to be) needed….
The idea behind the program was simple. Train attorneys in some of the “lower-stakes” (my characterization) aspects of family law, such as custody, visitation, and support. (As anyone in the program quickly learns, there are no low stakes aspects to family law.) Ask them to commit to staffing a volunteer office one morning or afternoon a month. Offer them CLE for the subject matter training, provide guidance and expert administration of the program by an experienced court attorney, and promise that there will be pre-screening of the litigants. The latter is much appreciated, mainly because no one wants to be confronted with a legal issue that they have not been trained to handle, e.g., serious domestic violence. Or a random drunk looking for some air-conditioning in summer. I have been volunteering in the program since its opening day, and have seen less than a handful of people turned away. Most people who pass through are decent, hard-working people, trying to make the best of what are at bottom broken relationships that have been turned into “cases” because the people involved need help. Children are almost always involved, and usually have no one to really speak on their behalf, even as the legal construct the family court system operates under is premised on having their “best interests” at heart. Understand though that the typical yearly child support that I encounter in the program adds up to less than my gross monthly pay as a first-year associate. In 2002.
What is it about this particular program that brings me, and dozens of other volunteers, back — month after month, year after year? For one, the fact that the ongoing commitment is limited is very important. It was important for me while I was in Biglaw, and just as important for me now that I have my own firm. I get to choose the date that I want to staff the office, and can do so to accommodate the rest of my work schedule. So I do not need to fear that I would have a pro bono hearing overlap with a meeting in one of my patent cases. Second, while the time commitment may be limited, the opportunity to help many people over time is not. I have had the privilege of counseling literally hundreds of people over the years, as the average consultation runs around a half-hour on average, and I can usually handle at least four or five in one sitting. Knowing that I am doing something that actually does contribute to so many others, just by virtue of my legal knowledge and litigation skills, is very rewarding. And it is always refreshing to interact with a cross-section of people, from all different backgrounds and economic positions, knowing that we all share (quite densely, actually) a small strip of land on the western end of Long Island. Additionally, I have found that volunteering in the program has helped me hone my communication skills, in a way that no Biglaw experience can replicate. So much of the secret to success in patent law is derived from a litigator’s ability to distill complex legal and technical concepts to a lay audience, whether it be a jury or a generalist district court judge. What better practice than to, on a monthly basis, try and guide regular people through the convoluted morass that is family law? It helps of course that family law is very interesting, especially to someone like me who has done their best to provide a normal domestic life for my own family while pursuing a Biglaw career.
Ultimately, in the program I volunteer for, my tools are limited to a box of Kleenex, some hand sanitizer, and my own willingness to listen to another person in the hopes that I can provide them some actionable advice that improves their legal position. I feel fortunate that I have found a pro bono program I can believe in, and that has enriched my life in many ways. While I hesitate to suggest that any fellow attorney should, whether they be in Biglaw or otherwise, be required to perform any legal services pro bono, I do suggest that it is worth the effort for an attorney to seek out a form of pro bono service that speaks to them and fits with their current professional life. With all the focus on the business side of law, particularly with respect to the unrelenting focus on financial performance that has pervaded Biglaw, it can be very liberating to help out those in need with no immediate gain for oneself. Because the need for legal help by deserving clients is ever present, even if the means to pay for that help is often lacking. If we all do our best to fill that gap, who knows how many lives can be positively impacted? In my case, I try to do what I can in a 30-minute window — sometimes with a baby in the room. What about you?
Please feel free to send comments or questions to me at [email protected]. Any topic suggestions or thoughts are most welcome.
Gaston Kroub lives in Brooklyn and is a founding partner of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and related counseling, with a strong focus on patent matters. He can be reached at [email protected].