In It For the Long Haul

To be a successful child advocate, Megan Watson knows you have to develop long-term relationships

Published in 2016 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers — June 2016

In 2000, Megan Watson was fresh out of law school when she volunteered through the Support Center for Child Advocates to help a 10-year-old whose mother was on death row after a murder conviction. Watson made recommendations on residential decisions, advised the girl throughout school and fought for the social services she needed. Sixteen years later, they’ve built a lasting relationship: Watson still gives the now-25-year-old woman advice, helps her fill out job applications and even helped celebrate the birthday of the woman’s 5-year-old daughter.

Last year, the Support Center named Watson a Distinguished Advocate, in part for her steadfast support of the longtime pro bono client. When another attorney praised her selflessness, Watson simply said: “I can’t imagine not having her in my life.”

Helping others is in her DNA—her dad is a minister, her mom a teacher—but the interest turned into a passion when she volunteered at domestic violence organizations while in school. 

“The reason I really loved working with victims of domestic violence is you really got to work with them from the worst points of their lives and then empower them to be independent,” says Watson, 42. “You got to watch them kind of come into their own.”

Watson, whose daytime caseload focuses on custody, support, divorce, abuse, special education and adoption cases, didn’t even have her Bar identification number when she took on her first pro bono case at the firm—helping a low-income Hispanic woman wrestle custody of her kids from her abusive husband. Since then, she’s served as a child advocate in a number of dependency and custody cases. In one, she observed a fourth-grader in the classroom and talked with him, his grandmother, his mom and the school psychologist to determine whether he should be on ADHD medication. In another, she repeatedly met with therapists, school professionals and a girl’s parents before making recommendations about custody and schooling, which the judge approved. The pre-teen, who is only three years younger than Watson’s own daughter, is now doing well and earning better grades. 

“To be a child advocate, and to do a good job with that, is probably more social work than it is legal.” Being a mother of two, Watson says, has helped her catch details that might otherwise go unnoticed. “You have to be able to connect with them. The reason I keep getting appointed is because they know I’m going to go to the school, I’m going to speak to any professionals that I need to speak to, I’m going to meet multiple times with the kid. You have to develop that relationship.”

Those relationships pay off in the end. 

“You go out and help a child who is being neglected and abused, and 10 years down the road, you may very well be looking at a child who now is able to go to college,” she says. “I don’t deserve credit for them. I’m just happy to have met them and been a part of that transition.”

 


 

How to Get Started

Watson offers these ideas for getting involved in pro bono work:

    > Join an organization offering free representation to those who can’t afford it.

    > Contact the local bar association and volunteer.

    > Serve on the board of a public interest group that helps veterans, the homeless or others in need.

    > Sign up to be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

    > Offer to be a mock-trial judge or to coach at a local high school.

“Either stick with something you’re comfortable with or find something exciting and new and different,” says Watson. “There are so many opportunities out there. You just have to open your eyes.”

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