October 2010


Kuol Aman

When it comes to lunchtime, most of us spend a lackluster 20 minutes at our desk, wolfing down a sandwich in solitude, returning to our work quickly, which we never really left aside in the first place.

Here at the State Bar, though, a small band of people (OK, two) work hard to host events that transform our midday meal hour. The Bar’s Diversity Department—comprised of Director I. Godwin Otu and Assistant Rosie Figueroa—calendars monthly gatherings that enlighten and entertain. And this past Wednesday was no exception.

You may have heard of the “Lost Boys of the Sudan,” but until you hear an articulate rendering of the group’s pathway from darkness to a hope for a better future, you don’t really know their story.

Between 1983 and 2005, more than 27,000 young people were orphaned, displaced or separated from their families in the wake of a Sudanese civil war. In it, an estimated 2 million people were killed.

Speaking at the State Bar Wednesday was Kuol Awan. He is 31 now, but he was only about 5 when his village—and many others in Southern Sudan—was attacked by government soldiers. Civilians in the villages—mainly women, girls and the elderly—were raped, killed or enslaved. Boys, who were working in the fields or herding animals, had a better chance of survival. Kuol explained how he and five cousins escaped. Adding members as they fled, they eventually comprised a group of about 300.

The boys came upon a neighbor with what he now knows was an AK-47. He led the group to the eastern border of the country—a journey that took three months and cost many lives. Death was due to starvation or attack by animals or tribesmen.

His description of a life of flight and of refugee camps was harrowing. Ultimately, he was in a camp for nine years. When he and his countrymen—4,000 young men and 89 girls—landed at Sky Harbor Airport in 2001, he was ready for a new life.

But American ways surprised them. When they originally landed in New York, they were struck by the fast pace of pedestrians.

“Why are they moving?” Kuol recalled with a laugh. “Why do Americans like to walk around?”

Another disconnect was the fact that they could not live communally, as they were accustomed. Separated into apartments, they longed for a gathering spot. That gave birth to the Lost Boys Center, in Phoenix. There, they could gather, do schoolwork and search for jobs. That is also when they began crafting clay cows, which would be sold to create a scholarship fund.

Kuol Aman updated the audience with the current situation in his home country. A 2011 referendum in Sudan will determine whether southern Sudan will separate and become an independent nation. In his own life, Kuol, now an American citizen, eventually was able to marry his Sudanese girlfriend and bring her back to the United States. He has earned his undergraduate degree in psychology and is working on a master’s in social justice. He wants to be a lawyer.

When he was asked what he missed most about his country, Kuol did not have to pause.

“The people I knew when I was young.” He has visited Sudan since, but what has been lost has been lost forever.

Here are a few more photos from his visit.

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This week has been designated by the American Bar Association as the National Pro Bono Celebration. Today, we speak with a lawyer from Fennemore Craig who has taken on a client whose case came to the attention of the Florence Project. More stories on lawyer experiences will follow.

Jason Covault

For many attorneys, the law takes them to a focused area, both conceptually and geographically. There may be intellectual journeys, but they’re increasingly circumscribed as one’s practice develops. There may be opportunities to take the world atlas off the shelf, but once we locate Wilmington, Del., for our corporate clients, our search may be done.

A journey of a different magnitude was in store for Jason Covault, when he agreed to represent pro bono someone who was detained on an immigration matter. From his office at Fennemore Craig, the commercial litigator got the chance to examine affairs half a world away.

Covault did not hesitate when he was asked by his fellow associate Al Arpad to take a case that came to them from the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project.

“Florence selects cases carefully, and these are people who have a decent legal claim. But if they don’t have an attorney, it is very unlikely that they’ll win.”

Al Arpad

As a former prosecutor, Covault had experience arguing cases and questioning witnesses in an adversary proceeding. And he also was confident because of the resources available to him: The Florence Project bank of similar motions and declaration, as well as its network of lawyers and firms; online handbooks published by the U.S. Government; and his own firm’s extensive experience with immigration and detainee cases.

If the law appeared manageable, the facts of Covault’s case could be described as a curveball.

His client was a Somali man, younger than 20 years old. He had been displaced from his home when he was a child, and had been on a worldwide journey that took him eventually to ICE detention in Arizona.

Covault explains that the boy and his family had lived in Kismayo, a port town that is Somalia’s third-largest city. Their life was good, as his father was a high-level city official. But when a militant Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, took over the city, his father had to flee to Ethiopia.

The boy was “on the radar” of Al-Shabaab because of his father’s status and because the youth spoke English. He was captured and tortured, and then offered the chance to convert and fight with his captors. “In the narrow period of time he was given to think about it,” says Covault, he too escaped, to Ethiopia and to Kenya for a time. (A story in today’s New York Times reports that the Shabaab executed two teenaged girls—14 and 18—claiming that they were Ethiopian spies.)

Here in Arizona, the legal issues Covault had to address included identity (“always an issue,” he says, in cases where refugees fled and have no access to documents), whether his client would be discriminated against if he were returned to Somalia, and whether he had ever “firmly resettled” back in Ethiopia (for if he had, he may be in no danger to be returned there).

“The case took a lot longer than I expected,” admits Covault. To get through the initial hearing, he says, required only about 20 hours of legal work. But a government witness claimed that Covault’s client was Kenyan, leading the United States to want to deport him to that country. The judge continued the case, and the issue was eventually settled in his client’s favor. But the case took about 85 hours of pro bono time. The added issue also required more trips south to Florence—about six in total.

Susan Wissink

Covault is pleased to report a favorable outcome: The judge granted asylum, and the government waived its appeal.

He recommends the experience to other attorneys. He says that it was “solid litigation experience,” one he won’t soon forget. In fact, he just participated in a meeting with Fennemore’s newest associates. With Florence Pro Bono Coordinator Tally Kingsnorth, firm partner and Pro Bono Chair Susan Wissink and others, he described his experience and encouraged them to take a case.

“You definitely breathe a sigh of relief when you’re done,” he says. Because of what’s at stake, “It is more nerve-wracking than advocating for your corporate clients.” And in the process, Covault managed to earn a global education.

If you are considering offering your legal services to the Florence Project pro bono, contact Tally Kingsnorth, a staff attorney and Pro Bono Coordinator, at tkingsnorth@firrp.org

Tomorrow: Another lawyer’s story.

This week has been designated as the National Pro Bono Celebration. We ran a story on the Florence Project yesterday, and we’ll post more stories about the lawyers who have stepped up to take Florence cases.

Today, though, we’ll look back at the June 2002 issue of Arizona Attorney Magazine. First, you can read how I described pro bono in my editor’s column. (As I write my column for the December 2010 issue, I may crib heavily from my own words!). And then you can read a great story—Practical Pro Bono—that we published in that issue, written by Leslie Ross, a former magazine colleague who is now an Arizona lawyer.

Here is my column:

Pro Bono in Practice 

If you ask the typical law student why they seek their degree, many of them, with or without prodding, will tell you that they want to help people who may be unable to help themselves.

If you ask the typical lawyer to what extent he or she is able to help others in a pro bono or reduced-fee capacity, you might be pleased to discover how many lend a hand.

Many other attorneys, though, will ask how those efforts fit into their practice.

“Very well, thank you,” would be the response from the lawyers featured in this month’s cover story by Leslie Ross.

Is the consideration of fee and no-fee a balancing act? You bet, these lawyers admit. But it is a paradoxical balance: The more they help, the more they achieve equilibrium in their lives and practice.

Many lawyers sense that today is simply not the right time to extend a legal hand. And they’re right: The time is never perfect. As Cesar Ternieden notes in the story, you may have too many clients or too few, too little time or—a frightening prospect—too much time.

But waiting for the perfect time is rarely a recipe for success (if all of us parents waited until the perfect time to have children, our population would be pretty small).

Instead, these lawyers suggest a different worldview. Pro bono work can be done in service to the client—and benefit you, as well, whether seen through the prism of increased experience, client and lawyer contacts or a sense of accomplishment.

As Cesar says, “There is always an excuse for not doing pro bono.” How much better it is to see the pro bono plunge—without excuses—as an expedition into profitable territory.

Here’s hoping your own scale is in balance.

As always, send me your thoughts: arizona.attorney@azbar.org

Leslie’s story Practical Pro Bono begins:

Let’s face it: Helping out can seem an overwhelming task.

Our family, our friends, our jobs and ourselves give us more than enough to worry about. As it is, there already seems to be too little of those resources that make up life—time and money. The idea of helping out or giving back to the community can seem impossible, a task best left to others.

Despite this, some Arizona attorneys devote themselves to community organizations and volunteer lawyer programs that change lives. These attorneys have learned to balance their pro bono endeavors with their work and personal lives.

It is not because they are superhuman. It is because their pro bono work energizes them. Pro bono law can be the reality-based reminder that democratic law exists to help people. It is an area of law where individuals can positively affect the lives of those in need.

Keep reading here.

See you tomorrow.

Yesterday I reminded us that this is the week designated as the National Pro Bono Celebration. To participate in the celebration, I am posting a few stories about one of Arizona’s longest-running success stories, one that has persuaded many lawyers to provide pro bono representation to those in need.

There are a few words that legal service providers rarely hear. But when they are uttered, they go a long way toward lightening heavy burdens.

Those words, of course, are “How can I help?” and at least one provider is pleased to report that the sentence has been directed at them more than usual this year. Despite that, the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project wants lawyers to know that they can call—anytime.

Why have they been receiving an upswing in calls? More on that in a moment. But first, we asked Florence staff to describe their need for lawyer assistance.

“In Arizona, about 3,000 people are detained [by Immigration & Customs Enforcement] every night,” says Thalassa Kingsnorth. “Of those, about 200 are kids.”

Kingsnorth is an attorney with the Florence Project. Here is how they describe themselves:

The Florence Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit legal service organization providing free legal services to men, women, and unaccompanied children detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security in Arizona. Although the government assists indigent criminal defendants and civil litigants through public defenders and legal aid attorneys, it does not provide attorneys for people in immigration removal proceedings. As a result, an estimated 90 percent of the detained people go unrepresented due to poverty. The Florence Project strives to address this inequity both locally and nationally through direct service, partnerships with the community, and advocacy and outreach efforts.

Their adult programs try to provide access to justice for indigent men and women detained in ICE custody in Florence and Eloy, Ariz. And their Detained Immigrant and Refugee Children’s Initiative “educates, empowers, and provides legal assistance to all unaccompanied minors in ICE custody and going before the Phoenix immigration court.”

Florence’s two other programs are:

  • The Integrated Social Services Program, which “offers supportive social services for some of the most vulnerable detained individuals, including the mentally ill, survivors of torture, asylum seekers, domestic violence victims, and parents at immediate risk of losing custody of their U.S. Citizen children.”
  • The Arizona Defending Immigrants Program, which “provides training, consultation and support to Arizona public defenders about the immigration consequences of criminal convictions.”

Since September 1, Kingsnorth has been the full-time Pro Bono Coordinator for the Florence Project. If Arizona is on the front line of America’s immigration quandary, then “Tally” Kingsnorth is one of a group of people working hard to assist its casualties. And her first-aid kit? Legal assistance, usually in short supply.

Her job includes recruiting and training volunteers, mentoring and placing immigration cases with lawyers and firms.

Tally reminds me that there is no right to representation in immigration proceedings, and the Florence Project is the only free information and advocacy resource available to those detained.

“We have six staff attorneys,” she points out—one lawyer for every 750 people.

Because of those daunting numbers, most of the detainees proceed pro se—representing themselves—but with intensive support from the Florence Project. In that effort, the staff provide mentoring, teach “know your rights” seminars, and assist with motions.

Given the mass of people, actual direct representation is possible in only two instances: in children’s cases (“All of our kids are represented,” Kingsnorth says), and in those that Florence determines are “especially in need of representation.”

Kingsnorth has hosted brown-bag lunches at law firms to explain the process and perhaps to recruit lawyers to help. In her line of work, it is crucial to build relationships with attorneys who may want to help but are hesitant. It can be slow and methodical work. But that is why this past summer was so surprising.

“Since about May,” says Kingsnorth, “every week we have gotten a cold call from a lawyer asking how they could get involved.” That was the rare but welcome “How can I help?” query.

What accounted for that, we asked.

Kingsnorth pauses and says she can’t be sure. But then she says that some of the lawyers have bemoaned Arizona’s new and notorious immigration-criminal law, called SB1070.

“Some have said, ‘This legislation is really mean-spirited; I want to do something.’”

Until this past April, Kingsnorth says, the Florence Project has had more cases than attorneys. But since then, more attorneys have been offering to help fill the legal-needs gap.

Is the gap filled? Nowhere near, says Kingsnorth. And that’s why she still is on the lookout for those lawyers and firms that step up when others step back.

Later this week: We speak with a few lawyers about their experience with the Florence Project, and find out what kind of attorney volunteer Florence is looking for. And we answer the question that we hope is becoming your own: How can I help?

High -- in antioxidants

Yes they did: It was hard to find at the Arizona State Fair this weekend, but here is a winner in candy. The category? “Joe Arpaio Fudge”

We couldn’t tell from the outside whether it was a cream center or a nut center. What do you think?

If it’s Monday, that means the National Pro Bono Celebration has begun. Didn’t know about it? Read on.

The celebration is sponsored by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, and it is “a coordinated national effort to showcase the great difference that pro bono makes.”

This is the event’s second year. In the process, the ABA hopes to persuade more lawyers than ever to help the country’s most vulnerable in their legal needs. They also “showcas[e] the great difference that pro bono lawyers make to the nation, its system of justice, its communities and, most of all, to the clients they serve.” And as you might guess, these difficult economic times make the need even more acute.

This week, I will post a few stories about a vital participant in Arizona’s web of legal services: the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. Florence has been doing amazing work since 1989. We will check in on their needs and their progress.

In the meantime, get started yourself. Travel over to the ABA’s dedicated Pro Bono Celebration site.

And then be sure to “Like” the effort on Facebook.

Finally, enjoy a few of the videos posted from around the country touting local efforts to provide remarkable service.

And if you’re still curious about what’s going on, be sure to use and search for the hashtag #pbweek on Twitter.

See you tomorrow.

Two un-family law stories for your perusal on this Change of Venue Friday. What do they say about the state of (marital) affairs, and about Arizona?

The first item revealed the Top 50 cities with the worst divorce rates. You should take a look; Arizona was well represented in the list.

City Number 2 was Sierra Vista, Ariz. Any attorneys in that city want to chime in on why the ranking is so high? The most recent State Bar Directory shows just over 50 lawyers in Sierra Vista. Come on, all: Inquiring minds want to know.

(It’s also worth your time to read the comments posted after the story. Arizona gets some pretty harsh criticism from readers.)

A second story examined the increase in requests for prenuptial agreements, even among the middle class. Apparently in a bad economy, everyone wants to hang on to what’s theirs.

Have a good weekend, whether you’re at work or—preferably—at home with loved ones.

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