Benefits of Volunteering Go Beyond the Client

Author: on 02/26/2016

shutterstock_272360927I spend most of my days steeped in PERM filings, H-1Bs and other thorny employment-based conundrums. I don’t speak Spanish. The number of asylum cases I have handled can be counted on one hand. I have rarely represented clients in Immigration Court. And yet, last year, I offered to help the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project remotely, if an opportunity arose. I didn’t expect the immediate reply of, “Here you go! The brief is due in a week!”

A week later, I was informed that a four-year-old girl was dancing around the CARA attorneys’ evening meeting singing the theme song from Frozen, grateful for the opportunity to remain safe in this country as a result of my one week of concerted effort. How was I able to do this? The incredible mentorship and support of two local immigration attorneys, Kim Hunter and Malee Ketelsen-Renner, made it possible for my efforts to change the lives of a mother and daughter in detention. I could urge everyone to volunteer because it is the humane and ethical obligation of any expert in immigration law. However, this volunteer experience was valuable for reasons well beyond the warm fuzzies that I continue to feel, nearly a year later

Through volunteer work, you flex your legal muscles, developing new skills and increase your confidence and authority as a skilled immigration attorney. This confidence resonates in all contexts and directly benefits your legal career. In the words of Kara Lynum, a two-time volunteer with CARA, “Volunteering with the CARA Project and with pro bono opportunities locally has really increased my comfort with legal issues that are just outside of my comfort zone and has pushed me to be creative and think outside the box to solve a client’s legal issues.”

These sentiments were echoed by Michelle Rivero, another CARA volunteer from Minnesota, who said “One of the biggest benefits is the opportunity to work with clients whose case types I would not otherwise encounter or actively seek out in my own practice.  So in addition to the positive feelings that come from knowing that my charitable work makes a difference, there is the added advantage of developing expertise in unique areas, which is not only helpful in my own private practice but has also has led me to develop relationships with younger/less experienced attorneys who handle cases with similar issues and are looking for guidance.”

My experience with the CARA Project resulted in an intense week of collaboration with two local attorneys, as well as remote communications with excellent attorneys from across the country. At the local level, I’ve had the same positive experience of building connections with local immigration experts through a free immigration clinic where I volunteer. The bond that is created mulling over tricky legal concepts in less than ideal circumstances with limited time and resources is one that lasts. These types of connections enhance your career in innumerable ways: expanding your sources of referrals, building a group of colleagues as legal resources, harnessing the emotional support of one another in the often high-stress, high-pressure environment of the practice of immigration law, and the list goes on

To quote Kim Hunter, a many-time CARA volunteer and crusader for the rights of the families in detention, “AILA is a huge organization, and I never had the deep professional connections within it that I have now, thanks to doing pro bono work in Texas. I have become part of a community of attorneys, paralegals, and students that I am honored to know.” Kara Lynum similarly stated, “I feel a sense of camaraderie with other pro bono volunteers and have a whole network of attorneys I can go to with my legal questions because I know they’ve had similar issues come up in their pro bono work.”

During a normal work week, I spend much of my time battling the Department of Labor on tricky PERM cases and comforting clients whose largest immigration tragedy is the Visa Bulletin backlogs. I love my practice and my client-base, but occasionally, I enjoy the powerful reminder that being a lawyer is not just a job – it’s a calling.

To quote Abigail Loesch, who recently accepted a time-sensitive CARA project remotely, “Not to claim that immigration lawyers are superheroes, but volunteering one’s professional services is ‘using your power for good.’ Those of us who have enjoyed the privilege of earning a law degree and landing a good career that supports ourselves and our families should spread that good fortune around by lifting up others through volunteer service.” That ability to do CARA work remotely is something that allows far more attorneys to participate while also managing to attend to family commitments and their usual jobs.

Mirella Ceja-Orozco, who similarly stepped up to take on a remote CARA case, echoed these sentiments, “Volunteering reminds me of why I became an attorney in the first place – to help people in difficult situations in need of a strong and caring advocate. I am utterly grateful to those who helped me on my journey to becoming a lawyer, so why not pay it back to my community, leading by example.”

There are so many ways to give back locally, regionally, nationally, or even internationally. Marissa Cwik, a Minnesota-based attorney who volunteers her time with the Advocates for Human Rights, stated, “Taking on pro bono clients reminds me that access to justice is still very dependent on wealth, societal status, and gender.  My pro bono clients have made me a better advocate because I have had to learn how to creatively fight for their rights.”

Salima Khakoo, who regularly dedicates her time to low-income immigrants in need, beautifully sums things up, “I feel that in my own small way I helped make this nation stronger…There is a concept in my faith called ‘Dan,’ which means to freely give and freely receive. It is part of the human experience to give with no expectation in return and to receive with no expectation of having to pay back. I feel that volunteerism – especially in immigration law – is an act of patriotism.”

I encourage everyone to volunteer their expertise and represent low-income immigrant communities. The time spent is replenished through increased professional energy, new and beneficial connections, and the development of improved legal skills that will follow you into your daily legal practice.

If you’re wondering how to get started, AILA’s Pro Bono page is a good place to find more information, about the CARA Project and other pro bono opportunities. Whether you can find a week of time to help on the ground in Dilley, a day to volunteer at a local Citizenship Day event, or a few hours to mentor other pro bono attorneys taking on UAC cases, you will undoubtedly help others and yourself!

Written by Sandra Feist, Chair, AILA Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter 

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