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Hooked

Doreen Hartwell has a penchant for pro bono

Published in 2022 Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine

After an in-home meth lab blew up in Clark County, Nevada, in 1999, a 7-day-old baby was found in the wreckage. The newborn’s mother fled and was never found; the father, who was in the country illegally, was detained by DHS for deportation to Thailand. Eighteen months later, Amy—the name the infant’s foster parents chose—became Doreen Hartwell’s first pro bono client. 

“This being one of my first-ever arguments as a lawyer, it was just the greatest feeling to represent that little girl,” says Hartwell, co-founder of Vegas-based Hartwell Thalacker. “The parental rights were terminated, and she got to go to her forever home with her foster parents, the only love and family she ever knew. After that case, I was hooked.”

While choosing law was a fluke—Hartwell was in a bookstore intending to buy a GRE study book and, last minute, added an LSAT prep book to her purchase—her penchant for pro bono isn’t. 

“When I was in that bookstore considering, ‘Hmm. Maybe a lawyer? But what would I do?,’ the only thing that was clear was I wasn’t going to be a corporate lawyer, and instead focus on public service,” she says. “Well, here I am: a corporate lawyer, but I never shook that need to be of service in my community.”

Hartwell got involved with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada’s Children’s Attorneys Project (CAP) in 2000, its inaugural year. The project’s goal is to ensure every child in the foster care system has their own attorney, and the toughest cases for Hartwell involve kids who have aged out of the system. “These really are the saddest,” she says. “They’ve come of age, they’re out on their own and they don’t have any family to rely on.”

Hartwell does, however, do her best to stay in touch with CAP clients after they’re released from the system. “As a CAP attorney, you are the voice of your client and an advocate,” she says. “Sometimes that’s just letting them know they matter in what they want, and that what they want matters.”

Hartwell is also an integral part of the Trial By Peers program, a Clark County Law Foundation initiative founded in 1993. “TBP is just about my favorite extracurricular activity,” she says. “Our program is actually a model for other states.”

The program allows children ages 12 through 17 to act as peer counselors—on both the prosecution and defense sides—and represent a fellow peer on a misdemeanor offense in front of a true jury of peers. Real judges hear the cases in real courtrooms. “The kids can subpoena and call witnesses, from police officers to anyone else,” Hartwell says. “Of course, there are senior attorneys in the program like me on hand during trial in case things really go off the rails.”

To become a peer counselor, students dedicate one summer to a mini bar review. “They take criminal procedure; evidence; criminal law; courses on how to direct and cross-examine, and open and close and object—everything they’d need to know to defend or prosecute a case,” Hartwell says. “In the past, I’ve taught many of these courses. And at the end of the summer, they have to pass a mini bar exam.”

Hartwell is consistently blown away by the students’ efforts: “I’m not kidding when I say some of them do a better opening and close than licensed attorneys,” she says. And not only has she seen peer counselors become actual attorneys, but she’s also seen previous defendants go through trial and come back as peer counselors. “That,” she says, “is the best rehabilitation outcome that I could imagine.”

It takes real courage for the students to stand up in court, Hartwell adds. “I’ve seen a 13-year-old girl start her case, with this quiet, low voice and shy, introverted demeanor, and the whole time I’m thinking, ‘Oh, sweetie. Why did you sign up to be a peer counselor?’ But then they start to come out of their shell. That growth and confidence is just a wonderful thing to witness.” 

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