Pro bono projects can provide some of the most meaningful and interesting moments in a lawyer’s career. It’s usually an easy decision to say “yes” when presented with a pro bono opportunity, because this type of work gives young lawyers invaluable experience and offers all lawyers a purposeful way to give back to their communities. Unfortunately, at the same time this work can be incredibly stressful, challenging, and emotionally taxing, and may lead to secondary trauma.

Secondary trauma is when the stress of working with a trauma-exposed client begins to interfere with a pro bono lawyer’s professional or personal life. Secondary traumatic stress, also known as vicarious trauma, burnout, or compassion fatigue, shares some symptoms with post-traumatic stress disorder, but it is the product of being indirectly exposed to another’s trauma. Examples of secondary trauma have been found in social workers who work with abused children; and therapists who support sexual assault survivors. Secondary traumatic stress also affects public interest lawyers, and has been documented among public defenders and judges.

On October 22nd, Proskauer associates Dan Nelson and Jin Joo received the New York City Bar Justice Center’s 2018 Jeremy G. Epstein Award for Pro Bono Service.  Since November 2017, Dan and Jin have coordinated Proskauer’s involvement in the Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project (VAP).  These two are no strangers to public service.  In addition to their current pro bono work, they both previously served with distinction in the military.  Dan served in the U.S. Army infantry from 2000 to 2008, during which time he deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan; and Jin served in the U.S. Air Force as a communications officer for four years, and was deployed to Iraq in 2005.

Through VAP we provide veterans with legal assistance on claims for compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The veterans we assist have disabilities arising from injuries sustained during their time in service, and are of limited means. These pro bono matters are important and impactful. At the firm, these are among the most popular cases to take, due to the challenging and fulfilling nature of the work.  Proskauer’s involvement in VAP has grown rapidly thanks in large part to a successful partnership with Bloomberg L.P.’s legal department.  We have represented a total of 45 veteran clients thus far with the help of approximately 30 Bloomberg and 70 Proskauer lawyers, paralegals and staff.

Public schools across the country too often rely on harsh disciplinary measures. These policies are marked by an in-school police presence, high rates of arrest and suspension, and ineffectiveness. Unduly punitive strategies harm students, exacerbate inequality along the lines of race and disability, and lead to increased dropout rates as well as entanglements with the criminal justice system.  Helping to break this pattern, also known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” has become part of our pro bono efforts thanks to Kate Terenzi, who just completed a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship sponsored by Proskauer. According to Kate, a greater emphasis on mental health services and an increase in trained guidance counselors and social workers as well as a new approach to discipline are key to improving our public schools.

Working at The Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), Kate has partnered with youth-led organizations on various policy initiatives and community organizing campaigns, and has represented young people facing school suspensions. At Proskauer, she has conducted trainings and served as a mentor and supervisor, enabling our lawyers to make a real difference in school suspension hearings.  Even when a suspension cannot be avoided, an attorney may be able to help reduce its duration or secure other benefits, such as help for a learning disability, or a transfer to a school that is better-suited to the student. 

Today, an increasing number of medical practitioners are recognizing the importance of providing appropriate, non-discriminatory, and patient-centered health care to people born with intersex traits.  “Intersex” is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of inborn variations in sex characteristics that do not seem to fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies. Considered a sex and gender minority by the National Institutes of Health, between 0.05 percent and 1.7 percent of the population is born with intersex traits.

Care of intersex individuals, particularly children, demands special attention to avoid biases based on outdated understandings of sex and gender. To assist hospitals in offering intersex-affirming health care, pro bono attorneys at Proskauer teamed up with nonprofit legal organizations interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth and Lambda Legal to create an educational policy guide designed to better educate hospitals about the unique needs of intersex patients and address the bias and insensitivity intersex patients and their families all too often face in a health care setting.