This edition of the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center Pro Bono Highlight features Tom Harris, the former Pro Bono Co-Chair of the North Carolina Bar Association Government and Public Sector Section. If the name sounds familiar to attorneys practicing in the Triangle area, it’s no surprise: before recently retiring, Tom did everything from clerking out of law school, taking a job in the Florida attorney general’s office working in general civil litigation and serving as a legal aid attorney in Winston-Salem before moving to Durham and taking a job with the state of North Carolina. He had served as the Pro Bono Committee chair for nine years.
Tom’s passion is simple: open the door for more government and public sector employees to become involved in pro bono work. This was his overarching goal as committee chair. As a former legal services employee, Tom knows that the need for legal help in the community is there, but he also appreciates the unique barriers that face public sector employees who want to become involved with pro bono work. In a recent interview with the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center, Tom outlined just a few of those perceived barriers: Unlike private-sector employees, public sector employees can’t use their working time and resources to do pro bono work without approval from their employers. There may be misconceptions in the workplace about employees’ ability to dedicate time to pro bono work. And because they do government work, public sector employees are more likely to feel like they don’t have experience in the areas of law where pro bono work is most in demand. Tom describes the inertia of being in a limited practice area unrelated to traditional pro bono work, and the apprehension many attorneys face when they consider stepping outside this comfort zone and the liability that might bring.
Still, Tom is quick to point out that many of these challenges can be overcome, and he is leading the effort to educate his colleagues in the public sector on the best way to tackle them. He has a message for attorneys working in the public sector: The opportunities are there, and the actual barriers are not as great as the perceived barriers. While public sector employees may feel that their areas of expertise are less in demand, Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) has documented the degree to which its government support has been lessened. This means the demand for pro bono services continues to increase—and more assistance is needed in every area, not just the ones thought of as traditionally rich in pro bono opportunities. And for attorneys worried about the liability of stepping outside their usual practice area, Tom emphasizes the strong supervision of projects, as well as the fact that attorneys who work with a supervised project, such as those overseen by LANC and similar organizations, are covered by malpractice insurance. Popular pro bono projects such as the Driver’s License Project are easy to learn on-site and provide attorneys an opportunity to feel good about serving the community without taking risks or stepping far out of their comfort zones.
For attorneys struggling to find the right project or who have tried to get involved with pro bono work but not been successful, Tom is an empathetic ear. He recounts trying to get involved with a project during his time in practice, only to not be able to access the necessary records or receive the necessary help to complete the project. Looking back now, Tom feels motivated by a desire to make up for this. He works to provide a variety of projects for members of the North Carolina Bar Association’s government and public sector members to participate in. Some involve direct client contact, while others can be done remotely. They require different levels of training and differing time commitments.
These days, Tom keeps his law license active, but he doesn’t have his day job: He is a full-time volunteer. His recent projects include Duke Law’s Expungement Project for clients of Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers with Duke Law. He’s helped set up two pro bono events for public lawyers who are members of the government and public sector section of the North Carolina Bar Association. He and the current GPS Section Pro Bono Committee Co-Chair, Benjamin Mount, are also working on a model pro bono policy for government and public sector offices to adopt as they see fit. He agreed to be interviewed in order to spread the word about pro bono projects and to inspire others to get involved, particularly those in government work and the public sector. It is Tom’s mission to help people distinguish between real and perceived barriers for performing pro bono work and to work together with the legal community to overcome the real obstacles so more low income North Carolinians will receive the legal services they need and deserve.