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National Pro Bono Week at UT Law: Spotlight on Jake Gilbreath, ’09

In recognition of National Pro Bono Week (October 23–29, 2011), the UT Law Pro Bono Program celebrates the pro bono efforts of members of the Law School community.

Recently the Pro Bono Program spoke with Jake Gilbreath, a 2009 UT Law graduate and an attorney at Piper & Turner PLLC, about his pro bono work in family law.

Gilbreath had his first experience with family law when he participated in the UT Law Domestic Violence Clinic for two semesters. He tried a contested case in front of a judge at the end of his first semester. “The judge still mentions that case to this day,” Gilbreath said. “There’s honestly no better way to learn than to do the clinic.”

The Clinic ultimately led Gilbreath to his firm. Through the Clinic’s work with organizations like Safe Place and SAHELI, a nonprofit organization that provides domestic violence help to Asian and other immigrant families, Gilbreath met the partners of Piper & Turner. The firm allowed him to continue to work a clinic case that involved the gamut of issues from violence to drug abuse and took two years to complete. “We ended up getting complex and special safeguards for the client and her child. It was great to be able to see the case all the way through,” Gilbreath said.

Gilbreath continues to be heavily involved in pro bono work at Piper & Turner. “The firm’s philosophy is that pro bono cases are treated the same as paying cases,” Gilbreath said. “We don’t treat pro bono clients as if we’re just pushing them through the system. We give them the same attention we would give any other client.” Gilbreath recognizes the partners’ commitment to pro bono work as the driving force behind the firm’s culture. “In our firm, we choose who we want to take because we’re interested in them, we feel for them. It’s not the partners choosing. The only question they ask is ‘Do you feel like you can help this person? Do they need to be helped?’ If yes, then absolutely take it.”

Though Gilbreath tries to work on just one complex, contentious pro bono case at a time, he also tries to be involved in smaller ways. The recipient of the Volunteer Legal Services Pro Bono Award last year, Gilbreath volunteers at the domestic violence clinics hosted by VLS and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “Pro bono doesn’t always mean taking the client. Even if you can’t take the case, you can still help people out with the process and reduce costs when they do find an attorney.” Gilbreath will sit down with a person for an hour to help point them in the right direction. “Often I’m just giving people my card and saying, ‘Sorry, I can’t take your case, but here’s where you can find forms. I’ll look over them for you.’ Or I’ll tell them to call me before a hearing to go through what they’re going to say and what it’s going to look like.”

On the importance of pro bono work, Gilbreath notes the responsibility of attorneys to give back. “The legal field is not a level playing field. People of lower income do not have access to quality legal services. It’s a huge inequity in society.” Gilbreath pointed out that despite gains in access to medical care and other necessities, legal services remain out of reach for many people. “Pro bono work is a way for lawyers to remedy this injustice. It’s a great way to stand for a cause and contribute in a way that no one else could contribute.”

Gilbreath also noted that pro bono work can have a large impact on career success, because some of the most complex issues come up in pro bono cases. “I’ve probably learned the most law doing pro bono cases. It’s a great way to make yourself stand out.” Referring back to how he got his job, Gilbreath said the networking opportunities gained through pro bono work are invaluable. “It’s a great way to meet other attorneys and get your name out. It gets you in front of judges. When we hire at Piper & Turner, we look for people with a pro bono background because we know that you’re involved and that you’ve likely gotten into the courtroom. Also, it’s fun. It’s just fun.”

Related links:

Pro Bono Program

National Pro Bono Week

Contact: Tina Fernandez, Director, Pro Bono Program, William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law, 512-232-6170, tfernandez@law.utexas.edu

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