NC Paralegals Leading the Charge for Pro Bono

Tell me about your regular practice area: Where do you practice and what do you do? What do you love most about your job?

I have experience in family law and insurance defense, but I currently am employed at the City Attorney’s office in Wilmington. I support the Deputy City Attorney, who handles all litigation and employment claims for the City, as well as an Assistant City Attorney who represents the Police and Fire Departments. Whereas my previous positions involved a lot of client interaction, discovery responses, medical summaries, and drafting pleadings, my position with the City is largely research and project based. I also prepare for employment hearings and assist with researching and rewriting or making changes to City ordinances. Although I have only been with the City since February, I chose to make a career move because I wanted my work to have a wider impact. I love that I get to assist in the process of improving ordinances to ensure that Constitutional rights are protected and that the City can provide a safe and enjoyable place for its citizens and businesses.

–What is your most recent pro bono experience?

My most recent pro bono experiences include assisting at Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery Centers, Disaster Legal Services Hotline, and FEMA Appeals clinics.

–What pro bono experience or project is most significant to you?

I most enjoyed the FEMA Appeals clinics. It was personal to me because I live in one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Florence, so I have friends and family who were affected by the storm. For example, my aunt’s house sustained over $25,000.00 of damage, and her vehicle was a total loss. She was denied by FEMA even though she had no flood insurance and is still displaced more than six months later. One neighborhood called Cross Creek in Hampstead is near where I live, and my husband and I assisted some friends with clean-up after the storm. We drove through the neighborhood, and literally every home for over a one-half mile stretch had most or all of their belongings piled out in the yard at the road. There were numerous businesses in Wilmington that had significant damage and either shut down for good or for several months while they made repairs. I was struck by the number of FEMA trailers I saw people living in and the number of people living in tents or their vehicles, and I wanted to do something to help. I was so happy that the NC Pro Bono Resource Center recognized the need on the coast for legal assistance with regard to FEMA claims, and I was even happier that I could use my education and experience as a paralegal to help.

— Why do you provide pro bono legal service?

I know what it is like to need legal assistance and have to max out a credit card or not have the money. Shortly after my son was born in 2011, my husband’s fifteen-year-old nephew came to live with us. He had been previously homeschooled, and I tried to continue that since we got him in the middle of the school year. By the end of that school year, it was evident that he needed more structure, but when we tried to enroll him in school, we were told we needed legal custody in order to do so. We had to max out a credit card to pay an attorney to get a Temporary Ex Parte Order and pay for newspaper publication for service. Two years later, his sister came to live with us, and we did not have any money at the time for an attorney, so I had to figure out how to draft a complaint and get it served on my own. At the time I had been contemplating going back to school, and within a few months I decided I wanted to get a degree to be a paralegal. I was blessed to be offered a paralegal position for a family law attorney less than a year into my schooling, and I have not looked back since. I knew that I wanted to be able to use my education and experience to give back to the community, so I looked for ways to make that possible. I became a member of the North Carolina Bar Association Paralegal Division, and once I had graduated and passed the State Bar Paralegal Certification exam, I joined the pro bono committee. That involvement with the Paralegal Division has helped significantly in learning the ways I could become more involved with pro bono work as a paralegal.

— How has engaging in pro bono legal service enriched your career, personally and/or professionally?

I find pro bono very rewarding and fulfilling because I like knowing that I’ve made a difference in someone’s life, no matter how small. While I recognize that the legal field is the way that attorneys and paralegals support their families, I also believe that everyone should have access to legal assistance even if their finances are unable to fund it. Seeking out pro bono services has allowed me to meet people like Sylvia Novinsky and Katherine Asaro whom I might not otherwise meet, and I can honestly say that I am inspired by them and other attorneys who dedicate their careers to providing members of the public access to legal services. I have also been able to connect with other paralegals across the state who are just as hungry for these opportunities as I have been. To some degree, these experiences have reinforced that there is a large portion of humanity who desire to go above and beyond to serve others.

— Of what moment(s) from your pro bono work are you the most proud?

After being voted in as a council member for the NCBA Paralegal Division in May, 2018, I also jumped on board as a Pro Bono Co-Chair. Annette Phelps, the Pro Bono Chair at the time, had been working on a project with Legal Aid of North Carolina called Lawyer on the Line – Paralegal Program, and she employed my help to finish launching it. Due to Annette’s hard work for over one year, we launched in October, 2018, and the first cases were referred to volunteers in February, 2019. We are in the process of recruiting additional attorneys and paralegals to assist referrals from LANC on matters such as Bankruptcy, Landlord/Tenant, Consumer, Education, Expunction, and Government Benefits. Additional information about this project, which we now call Legal on the Line – Paralegal Partnership, can be found here. Attorneys can volunteer by completing the form found here, and paralegals can volunteer here.

— What advice would you give someone who has not yet provided any pro bono work as a paralegal?

I would encourage every paralegal to volunteer at least once in a legal or notary capacity. Not only does it possibly allow you to work outside your usual field of law, but it will afford the opportunity to meet new people and attorneys with whom you might not normally come in contact. I know it can be scary to do something new and outside your comfort zone, but the outcome will likely be rewarding in ways you did not expect.

— To a non-paralegal who may not know what pro bono legal service is, how would you describe its importance?

Legal terminology and procedure can be very difficult to navigate for someone without legal education or experience. Even attorneys and paralegals have to take continuing education because the law is constantly changing. Pro bono legal clinics can often provide insight to an individual’s circumstance, which helps that person determine whether they actually have a claim worth fighting for as well whether they should seek paid, reduced cost, or free legal services. Clinics like the Pro Bono Resource Center facilitated to assist individuals with FEMA appeals and denials helped them to navigate the voluminous and lengthy requests for documents or to understand why they were denied and how to file again. Most of the members of the public who were serviced by these clinics had nowhere else to turn and would not have had the opportunity to file without the attorneys and paralegals who assisted with their paperwork.