As a brand-new attorney recently out of law school, Nicholas Chandler approached the Volunteer Lawyers Project about pro bono opportunities in February, 2008. In the midst of a job search, he was looking for a way to gain real-world legal experience and get more involved in his community. Since then he has been a weekly fixture at CLARO, the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office, where volunteer attorneys and Brooklyn Law School students provide advice to self-represented litigants being sued by creditors.
Nicholas graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts in 2004 with concentrations in contemporary history and German. The following fall he started at Tulane Law School in New Orleans, Louisiana and spent his first two semesters there. Barely into the first week of his second year at Tulane, Hurricane Katrina hit and forced the school to close. After escaping to Houston, Nicholas was quickly admitted as a visiting student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. At the end of that semester he transferred to American University’s Washington College of Law (“WCL”) where he graduated Magna Cum Laude in 2007.
Nicholas’ varied experiences during law school included work in the enforcement division at the United States Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked on drafting comprehensive settlement plans with industry groups responsible for oil spills and other large-scale water contaminations. In 2006, he co-founded WCL’s Poverty Law Society with the goal of bringing renewed focus to the growing inequality gap between the rich and the poor and addressing the decline of poverty law services in the D.C. area since the 1960s.
Below, Nicholas answers a few questions about his involvement with the VLP.
(Note: The following interview appeared in the May, 2008 issue of the Brooklyn Barrister. Nicholas has since become even more deeply involved with the VLP and has assisted literally hundreds of VLP clients. He was the 2008 recipient of the VLP’s Christopher Slattery Young Professional Award.)
VLP: How did you become involved with the Volunteer Lawyers Project and what types of pro bono cases have you handled though the VLP?
Nicholas Chandler: At my swearing in ceremony I received a pamphlet about the VLP and e-mailed Jessica Spiegel, the Pro Bono Coordinator, a few days later. I had been waiting for a great opportunity to break into everyday practice in New York since all of my prior experience happened elsewhere in the country. I started out as a “shadow” at CLARO, sitting alongside VLP Supervising Attorney Sidney Cherubin or one of the experienced volunteers, observing as they counseled the litigants. I’m now at the point where I feel confident meeting with litigants on my own and giving advice without first consulting Sidney. I’ve also begun to explore other pro bono opportunities at the VLP – I just completed my first uncontested divorce and am currently representing a VLP client in her spousal support proceeding.
VLP: As a new attorney, what motivated you to do pro bono work?
NC: I was eager for an opportunity to begin working as an actual attorney in the New York system. I got lucky and after showing up for CLARO a few times I was invited to take on a greater role as a volunteer attorney. I want to understand all the basics of filing and appearing in court as well as New York State civil procedure. As for the pro bono aspect, at the VLP I’m training to do the work that I actually want to do, so the fact that I do it for free doesn’t really make a difference to me. The people I’m assisting can’t afford to pay the rates of attorneys in this city, so who is going to assist them if someone doesn’t volunteer? Most of all, the work is its own reward. I see the difference between being an advocate whose pay is contingent upon his successful performance and being one whose performance is motivated by a desire to help people.
VLP: With all your other obligations, how do you make time for pro bono work?
NC: My only hours right now come as a substitute teacher at Brooklyn Charter schools, and work like that always ends by 4 PM. So I always have time to make it to CLARO. And I think it’s worth taking the occasional day off to work as a volunteer. In terms of the help that I can offer to people and the experience that the work provides me with, the VLP is a great opportunity to learn and do at the same time.
VLP: What would you tell other attorneys who are thinking about volunteering with the VLP?
NC: As far as I can tell since I started at CLARO, the new volunteers always seem to enjoy being there. I plan on doing it for as long as they let me; every week I learn something new and I’d like to think that every week I do at least one good deed. It’s a low-pressure atmosphere where we can dress down and talk casually but still do critical legal work for people who need help. Also, CLARO conveniently ends before “Lost” comes on so you have plenty of time to get home on the subway, assuming you don’t go out for drinks afterwards with the rest of the volunteers.