Lawyers have an obligation to do pro bono work: Donovan

By Tony Poland, Associate Editor

Pro bono work is not only rewarding, it’s essential for the well-being of the community you serve, says Fredericton family lawyer and mediator Jennifer Donovan.

“It’s a common preconception that lawyers are either all about the money and over-bill, or have no heart and wouldn’t help you if you couldn’t pay. But in my experience, I know many lawyers who do not practise that way,” says Donovan, owner of J. Donovan Law Group.

“I’ve been blessed with a career that I dearly love. I don’t consider it ‘work’ at all, so when I have a client who says they are unable to pay, I just can’t turn my back.”

She tells she is a firm believer in giving back. In the past 10 years, she has provided more than $300,000 in free legal services, and has been recognized by the Canadian Bar Association “for outstanding pro bono services to the community.”

“When I take on a file, I become invested in it and very serious about why I was hired, what my obligations are, and what I can do for this individual,” Donovan says. “So when I’m presented with a sincere inability to pay, it’s not in my character to say, ‘OK, see you later.’”

She says she was recently representing a client during a trial when the judge noted that it was going to be expensive for her to continue.

“I told the judge it wasn’t costing her anything to go on because I’m representing her pro bono. I said if I don’t, she will be a self-represented litigant and I don’t think that’s fair to her,” Donovan says. “I was invested and wanted to see the file concluded. The judge commended me in a caucus with my client for that approach and my generosity.”

She says far too many people are self-represented in family court, and that can result in unfavourable outcomes.

People who are unable to pay for essential legal services can find themselves stressed, which could lead to emotional and mental health issues, Donovan explains.

“To me, that is devastating, and if I can help a reasonable person put a legal matter to bed with quality representation — and maybe I don’t get paid my full rate, or maybe I don’t get paid at all — I’ve still done something extremely important,” she says.

Even though she runs a small firm, and it can tax her resources, Donovan says she and her staff are firm believers in the pro bono system.

“It can be challenging, and I could certainly use those fees. I have obligations to my staff because I now head a firm of eight people, so it’s not just me,” she says. “But they’re very happy and proud of our pro bono work and many times this past year I’ve had them say, ‘You’re so amazing. Look at all the free work you do.’ It makes all of us feel pretty good.

“Every little bit of help makes a significant difference over time, and people come back to me and say, ‘Thank you so much I couldn’t have gotten through it without you.’ That is worth billions of dollars to me.”

Donovan says it’s important for people to realize that lawyers are not driven by money alone.

“I think doing pro bono work is an obligation for all lawyers. I would say that it’s an obligation on all the bar to do whatever they can,” she says. “I know a tremendous number of very generous lawyers who work tirelessly to help people access justice and provide quality legal services because the cause is important.”