As it turns out, equal access to justice for all is not a pipe dream, but a lofty goal. Just ask Gibbons P.C. attorney Mary Frances Palisano.“I started my career at the Legal Aid Society and found the experience so inspiring,” she said. “Once you make a difference in one person’s life, you want to do it again and again.”
So, when she took over as coordinator of the pro bono program at Newark-based Gibbons three years ago, she immediately began exploring how she could leverage the firm’s resources to do the greatest good for the most people in need as possible.
Palisano decided to throw open the firm’s doors to host free legal clinics.
Working with Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, a nonprofit that provides free legal services for economically disadvantaged people throughout the state, Palisano launched Gibbons’ first clinic, which focused on expungement cases.
“A client may have a criminal conviction from their past, something nonviolent like shoplifting or something they did in their youth,” Palisano said. “And because of that conviction they are unable to get employment. New Jersey has a mechanism in the law that allows for the expungement of certain charges and it’s really life-altering for clients.”
Gibbons supplies the meeting space and the technology support required to run the clinics efficiently.
“The pro bono clients come into our beautiful conference rooms and are offered coffee and the snacks,” Palisano said. “They are getting the same experience as a paying Gibbons client and I love that. They should feel important. Their cases matter.”
According to Palisano, creating formal clinic programs with training and mentorship support for the firm’s attorneys encourages those who haven’t had extensive experience with pro bono cases to volunteer at the clinics.
“We want to make doing good accessible for everyone who is interested,” she said. “The clinical setting is a great way to get more of our attorneys involved. Our attorneys love it because they can just go upstairs and make a difference in someone’s life. It’s not a heavy lift on our part, but it’s a big bang as far as the impact this work can have on a client’s life.”
Due to the success of the expungement clinics, Gibbons will hold a legal clinic in conjunction with Partners of Women and Justice for the victims of domestic violence later this month.
“In speaking with the Partners for Women and Justice, I learned they were having difficulty helping victims with issues that arise after they get final restraining orders,” Palisano said. “These women often have issues with custody, visitation and other legal issues that involve their abuser after the restraining order is final.”
In-house attorneys from AT&T, a Gibbons client, will also be involved.
“Now, I’m doing more pro bono work than I’ve ever done in my life, and I’m so grateful to Gibbons for giving me the opportunity,” Palisano said.
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