Fall break pro bono work imparts lessons on efficacy, accuracy, and empathy
Champion Olatunji LLM ’23, an attorney who worked in Nigeria, said he was grateful for his first experience of doing pro bono work in the United States.
Just months into starting Duke Law School’s LLM program, Champion Olatunji LLM ’23 dove into his first pro bono work in the U.S. over fall break, volunteering to work with the Durham Expunction & Restoration (DEAR) program.
DEAR, a product of partnerships across Durham’s government, court, and community, provides free legal services to in-need residents and helps them with filing expunction petitions to restore suspended or revoked drivers’ licenses. The program recognizes that having a criminal record or a suspended driver’s license is a root cause of inequity because people dealing with these issues are often at a higher risk of job and home insecurity.
Olatunji, an attorney who worked in Nigeria, credited a “fantastic” guide at Legal AID of North Carolina (LANC) for helping him quickly learn the ropes of the program.
“Learning on the spot, especially while working on new legal issues in Nigeria was never a problem,” Olatunji said, “However, knowing that the U.S. legal system and issues are uniquely different helped me to think differently.”
His supervisor – Gina Reyman, regional managing attorney at LANC – needed him to be a quick learner, he said, able to handle multiple petitions with an eye for detail and a heart for his clients.
“[Gina said] I should get ready to dive into the work with her,” Olatunji said, adding that he appreciated Gina’s thorough and informed answers to his questions as he worked with the expunctions, imparting important lessons to him on how to be an effective lawyer. One key lesson was to make sure he understood the parameters of a case, including the exact offense committed, the parties involved, and the jurisdiction of the court.
Olatunji said, “This is important because as a lawyer, you cannot provide a legal service without knowing the problem you are trying to solve.”
He said Reyman emphasized attention to detail while combing through large amounts of information from items including intake sheets and petition documents, because they play a “very critical role” in obtaining a favorable outcome for a case.
Toward the end of his time with DEAR, Olatunji accompanied Reyman to court to file the expunction petitions that they had completed. Reflecting on his experience, Olatunji recalled the care Reyman that showed for her clients.
“Generally, as lawyers, we are expected to be empathetic towards our clients, but watching Gina and the rest of the lawyers at LANC do what they do so passionately helped me re-evaluate myself,” he said. “How much empathy do I have towards representing indigents and people who cannot afford the services of a lawyer? What can I do to move the needle? This helped me roll my sleeves and get deeper into the work.”
A final lesson from a week spent helping others: Olatunji said lawyers volunteering to do pro bono work in their communities could “go a long way” toward enriching how people view the legal profession.