Pro Bono Week Insights: “It’s humbling to be part of life-changing work”
As Thomson Reuters honors National Pro Bono Week, Legal Current catches up with Helen Respass, senior legal editor, Law Department Service, Practical Law. We discussed her role as co-chair of the Thomson Reuters Global Pro Bono Program, what sparked her passion for pro bono work, and how attorneys can give back. Below is a recap of the conversation.
Legal Current: What is the Thomson Reuters Global Pro Bono Program, and how is Thomson Reuters recognizing Pro Bono Week?
Respass: The Thomson Reuters Global Pro Bono Program encourages our employees with a legal background to use their skills and training, and take advantage of the generous volunteer time-off the company offers to engage in pro bono work. Our goal is to create an environment where employees find it easier to do pro bono work, and feel supported in their efforts to serve the communities in which they live and work. The program is made possible by our Regional Pro Bono Committees – employees who volunteer their time to connect with nonprofit partners, organize pro bono opportunities, and recruit volunteers – and our executive sponsor Thomas Kim, chief legal officer and company secretary.
While other large companies may have 100 or so lawyers and legal staff in their law departments who can do pro bono work, Thomson Reuters literally has thousands of lawyers. They’re not only in our general counsel’s office, but across our many businesses and functions. We have trained lawyers who have moved into Sales, Marketing, Product, and other pockets of the business, who still want to flex their legal muscles and make a difference in their communities.
This year we are celebrating Pro Bono Week with a fantastic slate of activities throughout October and into November. We have sessions to inspire and educate, like a bail reform panel on our Minneapolis-St. Paul campus, and a fireside chat on harnessing pro bono to support media freedom, hosted by our U.S. and Canada committees in partnership with TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono legal service, and The Committee to Protect Journalists. We are holding lunch & learns in Australia, the UK, and United States to engage new volunteers and introduce our pro bono program and nonprofit partners. I’m especially excited about our Pro Bono Volunteer Spotlights, where we are internally highlighting volunteers across the company and the fabulous pro bono work they do. In addition to our employee events, we are partnering with Baker McKenzie to participate in their Justice in Action Pro Bono Sprints for volunteers in the Americas, EMEA, and APAC.
LC: How did your passion for pro bono work start?
Respass: My passion for pro bono work is guided by my faith and this exhortation: “Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.” I started doing pro bono work during my 1L year at Columbia Law School. They had an asylum program that partnered with Human Rights First and law firms to represent asylum seekers. I was hooked the moment I started working with clients. My first client was a Chinese dissident fleeing persecution. He had a traumatic story to tell and had to navigate our complicated immigration system. I was able to use my legal training and language skills to help.
Since then, I’ve worked on asylum applications for clients from countries including Sierra Leone, Iran, Tibet, and Nigeria. It’s thrilling and humbling to be part of life-changing work that helps the most vulnerable in society find safety, economic security, and hope for the future.
I’m also passionate about enabling, empowering, and supporting others to find fulfilment, value, and success in their pro bono work. Many people want to give back, but they don’t know how and when, so I want to make it easier and more accessible for them to do so.
LC: What advice do you have for attorneys who are interested in doing pro bono work but aren’t sure where to start?
Respass: Many law firms and companies have pro bono programs that will help you get connected to opportunities. Also, many nonprofits and local bar associations post pro bono opportunities on their websites or send newsletters with compilations of open matters to interested volunteers.
If you’re not sure where to start, what are you passionate about? Maybe it’s children’s advocacy, animal rights, community revitalization, the arts, or the homeless. Whatever it may be, there is a nonprofit supporting those needs that you can contact to volunteer.
Also, it will always seem that you never have the time for pro bono work. Block out time for pro bono in the same way that you do for other commitments. Pro bono can be done in smaller chunks, so find the type of project that works for your schedule.
LC: What types of pro bono work are you currently involved with?
Respass: I like to work on different types of pro bono projects. The variety keeps it interesting and takes me out of my comfort zone. I take on projects that make sense based on my schedule and other commitments.
I have two ongoing matters with Safe Passage Project that I’ve been working on for four years. Several teams of Thomson Reuters volunteers took on cases to help unaccompanied minors entering the United States apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. My team successfully represented one minor in the family court system, and we’re now helping two minors navigate the immigration system. These cases can take years to pursue, but they make a big difference for these children.
Thomson Reuters also partners with Lawyers Alliance for New York to help nonprofits working to improve the quality of life in New York City neighborhoods. I have worked on a few matters to review bylaws and corporate governance documents and draft employee handbooks, and am now working to draft waiver and release forms for a nonprofit. These are great projects because you can dedicate short chunks of time in your schedule to complete them; they’re quick hits of pro bono if you don’t have time to take on longer-term matters.
I also volunteer with Open Hands Legal Services to staff their legal aid desks. Their mission is to uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed in New York. They hold legal aid desks at soup kitchens and homeless shelters to help clients with issues of housing, benefits, identification, immigration, and other issues.
One upcoming project that I’m looking forward to is the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s (AALDEF) Exit Poll and Poll Monitoring Program. I’ve volunteered for about 20 years, acting as either a monitor to document voter problems, or conducting a nonpartisan multilingual exit poll. I’m often stationed in Chinatown, N.Y., where I can use my language skills. It’s so important that Asian American communities have their voices heard and that we document issues of significance to Asian American voters.
LC: What’s the one thing you want everyone to know about legal pro bono work?
Respass: Legal pro bono work makes an incredible difference. According to the Legal Services Corporation’s 2022 Justice Gap Study, low-income Americans do not get any or enough legal help for 92% of their substantial civil legal problems. The legal system is extremely complex and difficult to navigate. For those unable to afford an attorney, access to the court system and the justice it can provide are limited.
Many studies show how critical legal representation is to the success of a case. The American Bar Association found that when unaccompanied children are unrepresented at removal hearings, only 15% of the cases win legal relief. But if they have an attorney, over 73% can remain in this country.
You may not be able to litigate a large case or represent an asylum seeker through years of immigration proceedings, but you may have the time to volunteer in a clinic, serve at a legal aid desk, review a contract, or draft a policy. Your pro bono service can help bridge the access-to-justice gap!