Jonathan Blum can still remember his first pro bono case. “When I started work in 2000, there really wasn’t a program at my firm,” Dallas’ Weil, Gotshal & Manges, he says. “We just had a pro bono partner that coordinated [activities] at a clinic in West Alice. I volunteered there, then started going on my own to the clinic. The West Alice community is predominantly Hispanic, and I speak Spanish, so it was a good fit. It’s an advice-only clinic, but you can take cases later if you want.
“My first case was a property dispute related to a divorce proceeding. [My client] defaulted on her divorce, but she was only served in English. She got letters, didn’t know what they meant, and ignored them, then had to vacate her property based on the divorce decree.”
The case was like nothing Blum had ever dealt with before. “It was overwhelming for me. I’m not a litigator — I usually take on corporate transactions,” he says. “I never see the inside of a courtroom, and now I’m arguing a hearing with an attorney on the other side.” But Blum stuck with it and ended up settling the case. “It was a little scary,” he says, “but it was a great learning experience and an opportunity to help someone with no chance otherwise.”
He may have felt overwhelmed at first, but Blum soon became a pro bono pro. He has since helped a woman adopt her granddaughter and has helped a woman get a divorce in order to remarry, among many other accomplishments. It’s a path that has led Blum to the 2004 Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year award presented by the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program (DVAP).
Blum says that most lawyers would do more pro bono work if the process were made more accessible. “It’s not that people don’t want to help,” he says. “A big part is just getting them over the hump.”
To that end, Blum has been instrumental in his firm’s pro bono program and in the pro bono community. He helped bring the DVAP into his firm to do what he calls an adoption clinic, in which attorneys take a CLE course on adoption law, and can choose to take on a case immediately after completing the course. Blum has also helped in facilitating mentors for attorneys who choose to take on pro bono cases, which he says are about 80 percent family law. “You find a way to take down the barriers to why attorneys haven’t done pro bono in the past,” Blum says. “With an in-house clinic, you don’t have to leave the office, you learn how to do it, and you can take a case right away.
“I think lawyers have a duty,” he says. “We have access to a system that everyone at some point has to deal with, and we have an obligation to help people who don’t normally have access to it.
“You want to be able to give back to your community. Some people donate money. Some donate time. Luckily, I have a skill that’s useful to people.”