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Starting a Children's Law Pro Bono Program at Your Law Firm

"Children's law is an area rich with legal issues where a lawyer can make an impact for the time spent." There is an enormous variety in the types of cases covered by the title children's law. Types of cases range from litigation to transactional work. Lawyers can advocate for children utilizing a variety of skills including negotiation, mediation, dispute resolution, interpersonal communication, trial and deposition advocacy, research, writing, client interviewing, and counseling. There are substantive areas of children's law where impact litigation may be the only avenue for justice for children. Many other areas allow trial lawyers to gain live court experience on behalf of individual children and families. In every area, good lawyers can make a difference in the outcome of cases which can have a tremendous impact on the child client's life.

How the Children's Rights Litigation Committee Can Help

The ABA Section of Litigation Children's Rights Litigation Committee can pair you with an expert who has started a children's law pro bono program. These experts are available to help develop new projects by sharing existing models throughout the country, designing the internal structure of a program, securing the highest quality of practice, assuring that programs meet the needs of the communities they seek to serve, and ensuring that a firm's volunteer lawyers and staff will receive an ideal practice experience.

The Children's Rights Litigation Committee publishes a state-by-state directory of pro bono children's law projects [PDF] with which your firm can partner to provide legal services to children in the substantive area that interests your firm's attorneys.

The programs listed in the directory can often provide training and mentoring to your pro bono lawyers. Additionally, the Children's Rights Litigation Committee can assist with training, and has some training videos.

Examples of Advocacy Opportunities in Children's Law

Child welfare

Traditionally, child welfare cases are ones in which the state is alleging that a parent has abused or neglected a child and is attempting to take custody away from the parent. These cases involve several hearings and at least one trial during the course of the case. Lawyers who represent a child in an abuse and neglect case can have a tremendous impact in the life of that child whose custody, safety, and indeed entire future will be decided by the end result of a case.

Covington & Burling in Washington D.C. includes a Child Welfare Initiative among its many pro bono efforts. The firm rotates an associate and a paralegal for a six-month period to the D. C. Office of Corporation Counsel to prosecute cases of child abuse and neglect. Its Initiative encompasses other aspects of child welfare, as well, including adoption, child custody and support cases. The firm also supports child advocacy efforts on the legislative front. For example, it has drafted regulations for child care centers. In providing these pro bono services on behalf of children, Covington & Burling works with a number of children's nonprofit organizations.

Domestic Violence

While some legal service offices represent survivors of domestic violence, the representation of their children is relatively new, though the devastating results of domestic violence on children is well documented. Davis Graham & Stubbs in Denver has partnered with the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center to establish a pro bono project focused on the representation of children in domestic violence cases. The Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center provided extensive training to DGS attorneys, who now advocate on behalf of children caught in the domestic violence cycle. DGS also highlighted the Law Center's work and the needs of abused and neglected children in its 2002 holiday cards to clients and colleagues. Janet Savage, a partner at the firm, believes that, in addition to providing an excellent opportunity for lawyers at all stages in their careers to give back to the community, this project offers excellent advocacy training and courtroom experience to the firm's associates. The Law Center has benefited from the firm's financial support and a stable group of trained volunteer attorneys who can step in on short notice to represent children in crisis.

Juvenile Delinquency

Children in delinquency cases are charged with crimes and the proceedings are similar to criminal cases, however delinquencies are civil matters in almost every state. Firms involved in delinquency pro bono representation are interested in the cases in part because they focus on interviewing clients, preparing witnesses, negotiating with prosecutors, and making decisions in the context of litigation. Thomas V.M. Linguanti, a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Chicago, a firm that has focused on delinquency cases, sees even more benefits, "Our associates are active in pro bono representation of children in Juvenile Court for a number of reasons, such as to serve the community, to defend the interests of those who can't afford it, and to be able to take charge of their own clients and their own cases. Advocating on behalf of children meets and exceeds all of those goals. We could not be more proud of our associates' efforts in serving the interests of children in Chicago."


Education cases can include a variety of areas, two of which are special education and school exclusion (zero tolerance). The representation of children within special education cases concentrates on securing the appropriate services mandated under federal and state law for disabled children within their educational setting. Advocacy can include negotiation with a school system, administrative appeals within a state system, and/or appeals to federal or state court. The representation of children in expulsion or long-term suspension cases involves advocacy at a school hearing or if a lawyer wants to get involved in the appellate procedures perhaps an appeal to a superintendent (or school board) and/or to state or federal court. Zero tolerance rules that mandate inflexible long term suspensions and expulsions can permanently end or disrupt a child's education, and lawyers are imperative to ensure fairness within a system that sometimes sentences children to long term exclusions from school due to relatively small infractions. McDermott, Will & Emery has created Kids First Project, a national pro bono program focused generally on eliminating barriers to a student's education, whether through the lack of appropriate services to a disabled child or through an expulsion from school. Each local office chooses its specific focus on special education, school exclusion or some other children's legal issue depending on lawyers' interests and the needs of the local community.

Benefits Advocacy

Benefits to families include food stamps, Medicaid, housing and cash benefits such as TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) or adoption or foster care subsidies. When a family's benefits are cut off, the end result could be homelessness, hunger and perhaps even state custody for the child. Advocacy by an attorney can often prevent these devastating results. Benefits advocacy is ideal for transactional lawyers since the majority of these cases are resolved through negotiation rather than through litigation. The legal department of Kraft Foods in Chicago has a pro bono project focused on helping low income families with issues involving food stamps and Medicaid, often advocating on their behalf with the government. Joe Klauke, an in-house attorney who volunteers through the project says that these cases are appealing because they are small, discrete and can be resolved over the phone. Additionally, since they do not need to be done by lawyers, their paralegals can volunteer to take cases as well.

SSI Advocacy

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is provided to children who are disabled and who often require extra care that either prevents or limits a parent's ability to work. If a child is denied SSI benefits his or her health may be threatened. Though the cases generally require an appearance at an administrative hearing, transactional lawyers can receive training to handle the cases and the administrative nature of the cases are conducive to non-litigators. Jim Kramer of McDonald's Corporation in Chicago is a corporate lawyer who has been volunteering to represent children in SSI proceedings for years and finds it tremendously rewarding. He said that without a lawyer his child clients would not receive SSI benefits which their families need to support them. Attorney Kramer agreed that litigation experience is not necessary to do this work and noted that he receives tremendous support from the Legal Assistance Foundation for whom he volunteers.


Each year, approximately 5,000 children arrive in the U.S. without a parent or guardian and end up in the custody of the INS. Many detained children who fear abuse or mistreatment by their governments or groups their governments cannot or will not control in their homelands may have cognizable claims before the Immigration Court. These children have no right to counsel though they face a contested hearing against a government attorney. In 2001, Latham & Watkins established a Child Refugee Project that focuses on representing individual refugee children, legislative advocacy for this population and systemic advocacy (for example, helping to write model standards for lawyers doing this work). Steven Schulman, pro bono counsel for Latham & Watkins, noted that because each of the firm's U.S. offices is involved in the project, it has been a tremendous help with team building within the firm. Through Latham & Watkins particular focus in this area, the firm is now recognized as an expert in this field, and receives calls from across the country inviting them to represent refugee children in exciting and groundbreaking cases.

Copyright © 2017, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).

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