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Volunteer Take: Pro Bono Makes Me A Better Attorney

I regularly work as a pro bono guardian ad litem through the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation. In my regular practice, I do family law on a sliding scale for middle- and low-income families, so I am used to working with complex issues and family structures. But my AVLF guardian ad litem cases always present new and interesting issues that challenge me to become a better attorney and expand my skill set. 

JoAnna Smith, Atlanta.

For example, in one case, I was appointed to represent the best interests of a young boy in a legitimation and custody dispute. When I got into the case, the pro se parties weren’t even talking, let alone effectively communicating about parenting decisions. Both parents interpreted the other’s actions as malicious. But in speaking to both sides and their witnesses, I could see that they both were good parents with common goals for their son’s well-being. I asked the parties to go to mediation and then worked with them to make sure they both felt that their concerns were heard. They made an agreement they could both live with and that included plans to attend co-parenting counseling to improve their communication. I am confident that my involvement in the case prevented a messy trial that would have been hard on the child and on the court’s schedule.

In another case, I represented the best interests of a girl in a custody modification. This was a challenging case for me. There were allegations of child abuse and a history of domestic violence. It was difficult to determine whether the allegations happened as described, and I had to get the information I needed without further influencing or traumatizing the child. As part of my investigation, I had to subpoena DFCS records, which takes very particular language to be successful. I had to speak to police detectives and mental health specialists in addition to the routine interviews with witnesses.

But the biggest challenge in this, and many other pro bono cases, was communication. It was difficult for the parties to get time off work or procure transportation to visit me in my office during office hours. Sometimes communication was spotty when phone service was off or the parties were working the night shift. I had to adjust to their needs. But I discovered that being flexible with their timing also meant that I could do this pro bono case while accomplishing my paying work during regular business hours.

AVLF is a huge support throughout every pro bono case I take. They provide templates of motions and orders I need and help me brainstorm solutions to problems. Their social worker has helped me seek out counseling and other services that could work with the financial realities of the families I am assisting. AVLF also provides guidance on investigating and writing reports on difficult issues.

The skills I have learned in these cases have helped me numerous times in other areas of my professional career. The processes necessary to get vital information from each kind of witness or agency is integral to my paying guardian and litigation practice. Client management and writing skills can always use honing. And it is valuable to be exposed to as many types of cases as possible as I build my practice.

I am a guardian ad litem because I love having a positive impact on families. But I take cases through AVLF because they provide the support I need to be successful in confronting challenging issues and to develop my skills. That’s why I will continue to take pro bono cases through AVLF—and I encourage others to, as well.

This article was originally published by the Daily Report.


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