From the vaults: In collaboration with Texas Bar Blog for National Pro Bono Week
Cynthia Herrera is a public interest attorney with the Texas Advocacy Project.
What kind of pro bono do you do and how long have you been doing it?
I am a justice warrior (a.k.a. a public interest attorney) and a staunch advocate for medical-legal partnerships. I have been licensed as an attorney for nearly 5 years and have been at the Texas Advocacy Project for the last 3 years, providing free legal services to clients that have experienced intimate-partner violence, stalking, or sexual assault. But, I have been interested and active in public interest work since before I went to law school. During law school, I did pro bono work as an intern at public interest firms such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Health Justice Project (HJP), and the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (LAF).
Why is pro bono important to you?
This work is so important to me because I know, from my own family’s experience, that there are people who suffer injustice and do not have the means to hire an attorney to combat it. I know that a fair day in court can be life-changing. And, I know that it is important to use my talents to serve those who would not otherwise have access to justice. I also have a deep understanding that many people face many very real obstacles that prevent them from accessing necessary legal services. My goal is to break down those barriers by partnering with healthcare centers and other access points in the community to bring legal services to those that would not usually be able to access them. As professionals that care about vulnerable populations, I believe that it is our duty to go to people where they are and wrap them in the services that they need to thrive. And, establishing and developing medical-legal partnerships is an effective and innovative way to do it.
What have you learned from doing pro bono?
I’ve learned so much from doing this work. Beyond the technical legal skills that I have gained, I’ve learned a lot about the complex needs of the specific population that we serve. I’ve gained a wealth of knowledge in the many obstacles and challenges our clients face from the legal system and society at large. And, I’ve learned about the amazing community that is constantly working to join forces in preventing and addressing the many detrimental effects of intimate-partner violence.
What would you say to an attorney who is thinking about doing pro bono for the first time?
I would insist that every attorney do pro bono work. I think one would be surprised at the challenges that are presented and how much there is to learn from a single case. Beyond that, the work is extremely rewarding. The client’s experience in court can be drastically improved when represented by an attorney. The court often times relates better to an attorney than a pro se litigant. And, often, the client has all the facts on her side, but would not otherwise be able to present the evidence adequately to the court without an attorney. Clients understand this and they are usually very grateful when an attorney offers her advanced skill set to bring them justice. Truly making a difference in someone’s life is what makes pro bono work so special.
Share one of your favorite pro bono success stories.
Liliana* came to the Texas Advocacy Project to get help with getting divorced and finding protection for herself and her two daughters. Liliana and her children suffered verbal, mental, and deadly physical abuse by her husband. Recently, her husband threatened to kill her, by burning down their family home, and strangled her to the point that she thought that she was going to die and her children would find her dead in their home. Liliana was still living with the abuser when she sought our services to get her divorce as soon as possible. It was clear to me that Liliana was still very much in danger. We determined that the next best step would be for Liliana to seek a protective order for herself and her children. Because Liliana needed our help right away to get safe, I decided to directly represent Liliana in her application for protective order with the court.
Liliana was lucky enough to have a place to go to temporarily until she could safely return to her home. But, it was very important to Liliana that she return to her family home with her girls, so they could continue on with the normalcy of their lives. So, we decided to file a temporary ex-parte protective order, along with the application for long-term protective order. With the support of the written statement Liliana and I crafted together, the judge signed the order the same day we filed the application. This emergency order gave Liliana the right to sole possession of the home and ordered her husband to vacate the residence right away. The order also gave Liliana the protection of her husband being ordered to stay 200 yards away from her and the home and from communicating with her, threatening, or harassing her. Liliana was very relieved that her and her girls could go back home safely.
Liliana’s husband hired an attorney to represent him at the final hearing for protective order. Liliana’s husband was afraid that he was going to be arrested for the strangulation, so he was willing to settle the case. In the end, we were able to secure a 15-year protective order that gave Liliana possession of her children, ordered her husband to pay child support and the monthly bills, awarded Liliana possession of her vehicles, and sole possession of the family home.
Liliana’s husband recently filed for divorce. We were able to connect Liliana with local legal aid and they have agreed to take her divorce case on direct representation so that she will not be facing her abuser in court alone.