How Sports Made Me a Better Pro Bono Attorney
The Bencher—May/June 2020
By Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire
My story about protecting the vulnerable starts in an unlikely place: on a soccer field. After the extracurricular rigors of law school and college, the real world for me lacked the same level of excitement and fulfillment as school clubs, journals, and other volunteer activities. I longed for an outlet to give back to others while injecting balance to an otherwise all-consuming law practice. That is when I started coaching Special Olympics athletes. What started out as a week-by-week commitment during soccer season soon turned into a year-long commitment, following my athletes from the soccer field to the basketball court and then to the track and field venue, where we would round out our year before returning to the soccer field once again. At the time, I didn’t realize that my new coaching role would also assist me in supporting the pro bono needs of the community.
When I heard about an opportunity through my local legal aid organization to help individuals become guardians of their family members who had disabilities, I jumped at the chance. To my surprise, many of those seeking to be appointed as guardians were parents of children with disabilities. These parents wanted to continue to assist with their children’s medical and financial needs after they reached the age of maturity but were unable to do so in many instances without court intervention.
That is when I met Julia and her son, Sam.* Julia is a single mom raising her kind and affectionate son who has a physical and mental disability. Sam functions at a high capacity but is unable to fully take care of himself. After Sam turned 18, Julia had difficulty getting access to Sam’s health and financial information, even though she was his full-time caretaker. Julia reached out to legal aid, and we were connected. Julia was initially intimidated by the legal process but felt comfort in being represented by counsel and by working with someone familiar with the day-to-day challenges her son faced. After completing all the necessary paperwork, receiving the blessing of a court-appointed guardian ad litem, and attending a short hearing, Julia officially became Sam’s legal guardian. She was happy, and I was grateful for the opportunity to put both my life experience and legal skills to use.
The justice gap is a serious problem facing all of our communities in some way. But, as I have learned, protecting the vulnerable doesn’t have to just be through grandiose efforts or broad-sweeping reforms. Helping one individual may not be a huge bridge across the gulf between the legal needs of low-income Americans and those willing and available to offer such relief, but it does change the world for that one person. Most legal aid chapters are willing to work with attorneys to find clients who are a good match for the skills and life experiences of the volunteer attorney. In addition to helping with uncontested guardianships, the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia—my local legal aid office—provides opportunities for attorneys to assist with uncontested divorces, adoptions, and debtor’s rights clinics. They even provide trainings, templates, and advice throughout the pro bono process.
In my office, I have a framed quote from the activist Marian Wright Edelman that reads: “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.” So too with our pro bono efforts. Reach out to your local legal aid organization and see if you can put your life and legal experiences to use serving others.
* For protection of client confidentiality and for privacy reasons, the names of the individuals referenced have been changed in this article.
Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire, is a civil litigator at Vandeventer Black LLP in Norfolk, Virginia. She is an executive committee member of the James Kent American Inn of Court. The views advanced in this article should not be mistaken for the official views of Vandeventer Black LLP.