Leslie O’Neal on the moral imperative of pro bono work
Published in 2022 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine on February 14, 2022
One of Leslie O’Neal’s most rewarding pro bono cases involved a young mother who lost custody of her son due to her battle with drug addiction.
“The father really took advantage of the situation,” says O’Neal, a family law attorney and co-founder of O’Dell O’Neal Hungerford & Blanchard in Marietta. “He refused to let her see the child, even when she offered to have a supervisor with her. He led the child to believe that his stepmom was actually his biological mother.”
The young mother, who had no money and had not seen her son in two years, was actually going to file the case on her own and called O’Neal simply to make sure she was doing everything properly. “I ended up offering to represent her for free,” O’Neal says, as long as the woman stayed sober and was willing to pass any random drug test. The woman agreed, and after a year of litigation and multiple hearings she was awarded primary custody with all decision rights.
“I still get photos. She sends me first-day-of-school pictures,” O’Neal says. “Those are the ones you remember for sure.”
O’Neal makes it a habit to have at least one pro bono case going, and encourages young attorneys to volunteer with their local legal aid organization—as she does with Cobb Legal Aid. “It’s becoming the case that only the rich can afford to go to court,” she says. “So it’s imperative we make sure [people with lower incomes] have access to high-quality legal services.”
She feels that’s especially true in family law, where people are often facing painful situations. “They’re usually at odds with someone they’ve trusted, someone they often share a child with,” she says. “Then on top of that, to not have money for quality legal representation—or any legal representation—would be enormously difficult.”
In addition to the moral imperative, O’Neal says working with a legal aid organization is a good way to learn new areas of the law. “I learned adoption law essentially by getting involved in legal aid and asking for adoption cases,” she says. She touts other benefits, too, especially for recent law-school graduates. Pro bono, she says, “gets you in the courtroom. Judges love hearing when you’re representing someone through legal aid. They will applaud you for it [and] they’ll remember it.”
Another pro bono case that’s stayed with her involved a stepfather who wanted to adopt a child so severely abused by her biological father that she had long-term health issues and severe developmental delays. The case was straightforward from a legal perspective—the adoption was not contested by the biological father, who was in prison for the abuse—but it was rewarding to finalize an adoption that meant so much to the family and the child. “Being a part of that—where somebody was stepping up to be a parent to a little girl with special needs—was very special,” she says.