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Pro Bono Lawyers: Making a ‘Life-Altering’ Difference

October 27, 2015

Beth Levene of Williams & Connolly clearly remembers her first pro bono case with Children’s Law Center. It was on behalf of a boy with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities, who was falling further and further behind in his DC school.

By the time Beth met him, the student was in 9th grade but read at the 2nd grade level. The school hadn’t provided much of the specialized help the teen needed and moved him into a general school. He grew frustrated – and the school threatened to suspend him when he acted out. Other students also began bullying him.

“Everything that could go wrong for this kid, did,” Beth said.

As a partner at Williams & Connolly and co-chair of the firm’s class action group, Beth’s role on pro bono cases is to actively supervise other attorneys so they can get a good outcome. Beth also serves on the firm’s pro bono committee, helping to guide partnerships within the legal services community.

“Williams & Connolly is very committed to and supportive of pro bono service,” she said. “We count pro bono hours as billable hours and have a wide range of pro bono opportunities. Any associate taking on a case has a partner involved.”

But for her first Children’s Law Center case, Beth got much more involved in the day-to-day details.

“It was just shocking how badly [the school] served this kid,” she said.

Beth Levene of Williams & Connolly

Beth’s personal interest in helping at-risk children came into focus about five years ago, after her own children reached school age. She saw many kids struggling without the support they needed, a “stark contrast” to her children’s experiences, she said.

“Any parent knows how distressing it is to see a child struggling,” she said.

As a pro bono lawyer, she believes “the difference you can make is really life altering for children and for their families. When a child is struggling in school, it affects more than their education, the kid can start acting out and it can really snowball. Oftentimes just having a lawyer involved can make a huge difference in that child’s future.”

Beth also believes that pro bono service is good for lawyers.

“Being first chair on a case, having that direct client contact, it’s a really valuable experience for associates,” she said.

Children’s Law Center works with more than 500 pro bono attorneys like Beth each year. Though we are the largest non-profit legal provider in DC, many more children come to us than we can help. Our pro bono attorneys help fill the gap, taking on life-changing cases in areas from special education to adoption to custody matters.

Williams & Connolly has been a strong pro bono partner with Children’s Law Center for almost a decade, increasingly in the area of special education.

Beth raves about the support Williams & Connolly attorneys have received from Children’s Law Center in their cases. This support has included training, legal materials and one-on-one mentorship to help with case strategy and to answer questions – something Children’s Law Center offers to all its pro bono partners.

“The Children’s Law Center mentors are really fantastic, you get tremendous support, they will spend however much time we need for them to be on the phone and talk through issues,” Beth said.

Beth continues to actively supervise pro bono cases at her firm and has honed her knowledge of special education matters over the years.

“As a pro bono supervisor, having institutional knowledge of special education cases has been helpful, because I can help troubleshoot issues for our associates,” she said.

That first Children’s Law Center case still stays with her.

Because the boy’s school initially refused to provide the support he needed, the case ended up in an administrative hearing, a forum that resolves disputes between families and schools. Fortunately for the teen and his family, Beth and her team won. He ended up being moved to a school that could meet his needs and getting additional tutoring to make up for all the lost time.

“It felt really good to win, to get him out of a school where he was being bullied and was regressing to a place where he is now on a path to have success,” she said.

It was the best outcome imaginable for the once struggling student and his parents. And for Beth, a tangible example of the “life altering” difference that pro bono attorneys can make through their service.

Learn more about the pro bono program at Children’s Law Center.