Learning begins at home. It’s true for laying the groundwork for the subjects you learn in school. It’s true for laying the foundation for the principles on which you build your life.
Andrew Strait first learned public service at home. Both his father and mother were committed to the idea of public service and giving back to the community. As a young man, Strait was drawn to public service and decided he would like to go into the Foreign Service.
One summer, he got a job in a foster house working with sexual abuse offenders who had also been abused. He noticed during his time there that the legal representation the young men received was generally inadequate. “The children barely saw their attorneys,” Strait recalls. “Often, the attorneys showed up only moments before having to appear in court.” He felt the children were not being given a voice, and his attempts at addressing these issues fell on deaf ears.
So, he decided to do something about it. Strait located and was accepted at a law school that would enable him to focus on child advocacy. During his schooling he was able to take advantage of some exciting internships with the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Court System working on juvenile justice issues. “I thought I would wind up working with the local District Attorney’s office until I got an offer and was accepted into the Presidential Management Fellowship program in D.C.,” Strait says. He spent the next two years rotating through the branches of the Federal government doing policy work on various social and child advocacy issues. “Although the work was fascinating,” Strait admits, “I knew my passion lay elsewhere in terms of direct immediacy of help.” He decided to volunteer for pro bono work.
Doing legal volunteer work in Maryland meant taking the Maryland Bar, so he did. As soon as Strait learned he had passed, he contacted the Pro Bono Resource Center and was referred to Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County. “I had never done any litigation – all my previous work had been policy (work), but they got me a mentor and started me off in their legal clinic at the courthouse,” Strait explains.
“I was able to very quickly learn about family law just by talking with the clients and giving brief legal advice,” Strait says. “If I didn’t have the answer, I was able to tell them when I would be back and that I would have the answer for them then.”
Strait found he learned about not only family law but elder and landlord/tenant law as well. It seems the masters and judges tended to send to the clinic anyone who needed help because there was always someone there who could help. “I always told the clients if I didn’t have the knowledge in the area in which they were seeking help, I would help them in any way I could,” he notes.
After spending some time at the CLS clinic, Strait decided it was time to take some cases. Although it is sometimes difficult for him to find the time to take a case due to the extensive travel requirements of his Secret Service job, Strait manages. “I have a very understanding boss who appreciates that this kind of work is my passion,” Strait explains. “I know it is difficult for government attorneys to do pro bono work because of the restrictions placed on them, but it is possible to navigate those obstacles if you are willing to take the time to find the way.”
For the last two years, Strait has been working steadily on the cases coming through Community Legal Services, but has found himself taking more and more divorce and support cases since that is the area of greatest need. He decided he needed to add other types of cases to give himself a sense of completion. About 10 months ago, he started taking on adoption cases. “It’s great,” he says. “I am the child’s attorney and advocate for the best interests of the child”
“Direct, immediate impact: that’s what this work does for me,” he continues. “I love the fact that someone can come into the clinic with a problem and through the simple effort of writing a letter or making a phone call I can help them get a solution to their problem. I look forward to it. I tell everybody I work with to volunteer.”
Support the legal service agencies in your community. Add your resources to the fight. For more information about pro bono opportunities around the state, contact the PBRC at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jon Moseley is Director of Volunteer Services & Community Outreach for the ProBonoResourceCenter of Maryland.