The more you give

April 10, 2023
Spiders celebrated for their volunteerism share advice about working pro bono.
By Kim Catley

Years before she became a lawyer, Liz Burneson, L’18, was active in the community, particularly in politics and government affairs. She served as a voter protection volunteer, volunteered with several local nonprofits, and was appointed to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Advisory Board on Service and Volunteerism shortly before law school.

Since law school, however, she has narrowed her volunteering focus to pro bono legal services.
“I have this difficult-to-obtain skill, and there’s such a high demand for pro bono attorneys,” she said. “I think pro bono work is how my time is best used now.”

Burneson is hardly alone at Richmond Law. The school places a high value on pro bono and public service work, with a variety of opportunities for students to experience a service-based legal education. In particular, the Harry L. Carrico Center for Pro Bono and Public Service partners with local, national, and international organizations to offer programs targeting issues like housing and eviction, immigration, health and medicine, and no-fault divorces. Pro bono experiences are embedded in the curriculum and provide chances for students to practice their developing skills.

Those who show a particular commitment to volunteering their legal services can receive a Pro Bono Certificate upon graduation. More than 20% of the Class of 2022 took this step, and collectively they performed nearly 6,000 hours of service.

With that foundation, it’s no surprise that Richmond Law alumni continue to prioritize pro bono work once they launch their careers, including several who have received recent recognition for their contributions to the community.

Here, four Richmond Law alumni talk about the role pro bono work has played in their careers and how they find meaning through service.


Get started early.

Mike Goldman, L’07, a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, specializes in mergers and acquisitions and transactional law — but he said a nonprofit law course early in law school revealed that he could apply his corporate and tax law knowledge to help local organizations. He went on to earn Richmond Law’s Pro Bono Certificate and continues to work with nonprofit organizations on governance and operations issues.

“I wasn’t the type, admittedly, that was going to go into public interest law,” he said. “But I’ve always been interested in helping nonprofits. I think they do amazing work on shoestring budgets thanks to the blood, sweat, and tears of individual volunteers who are committed to the mission.”

Goldman was introduced to the Greater Richmond Bar Foundation as a young associate when a colleague shared a message from the GRBF Pro Bono Clearinghouse, a signature program that provides free legal services to Virginia nonprofits. They were looking for support with several transactional law opportunities, and Goldman knew he had something to offer. He worked with a Hunton partner on articles and bylaws and said it was eye-opening to see how much they could help.

Goldman has since served on the GRBF’s board, chaired the Pro Bono Clearinghouse effort, and was president in 2020-21. He recently received GRBF’s Benjamin R. Lacy IV Volunteer Award. He also serves as co-chair of Hunton’s Richmond office pro bono committee.

He encourages law students and new attorneys to take advantage of pro bono opportunities — whether through the GRBF or other avenues — whenever possible.

“As a law student, you can’t really understand how important it is to take every opportunity that comes your way,” Goldman said. “Pro bono opportunities are just as good — and sometimes even better — than billable work.

“I always tell law students to try it all, and when you find something that makes you feel good or you feel passionate about, whether it’s billable or pro bono, do that. The more you do what makes you feel good, the happier you’ll be at work.”

The need for pro bono services is so great that if you don’t take on a client, that client is probably not going to have any representation.
Liz Burneson, L'18, left; Mike Goldman, L'07, right
I always tell law students to try it all, and when you find something that makes you feel good or you feel passionate about, whether it's billable or pro bono, do that.

It can help you early in your career.

Goldman said his pro bono work played a pivotal role in developing skills early in his career. As a junior associate, he often worked in the background, listening and learning from the more experienced attorneys around him. But when he took on a pro bono case, he could take the lead on interacting directly with clients, guiding negotiations, and translating requests — all skills that take practice.

In addition, when he didn’t know the answers to questions, he had to figure them out independently. Pro bono work gave him the space to conduct his own research without worrying about the ticking clock of billable hours.

“No pro bono client would challenge how much time I spent because the cost was zero,” he said.

“It was a nice, freeing feeling, and that research was applicable to both my pro bono and billable clients.”

Burneson is now assistant general counsel at the University of Richmond but initially worked as an associate at Hirschler Fleischer. There, she said, her landlord-tenant pro bono work allowed her to hone her litigation skills, which supported her billable work in commercial litigation and employment counseling.

“Even though I was at a firm where young lawyers got a lot of opportunities to deal with clients directly, it was something I needed more experience in,” she said. “I got to prepare for and go to trial on a pro bono case early on in my career. And pro bono work allowed me to work one-on-one with clients and develop a personal style that has served me well in my career.”

She said it’s also essential for beginning lawyers to remember that they provide a valuable service and have access to resources that many people don’t.

In addition to her housing work, Burneson has spent several years volunteering with CancerLINC, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to cancer patients in Richmond. She recently received the Krista Latshaw Pro Bono Award from CancerLINC.

She recalled one client — a teacher planning a move to a new state — who had a lot of questions and concerns about when to disclose her cancer diagnosis to her new employer and the accommodations she would need for treatment.

“We sat down and talked through the employment laws, what her new employer could and couldn’t do, and what the consequences would be if they violated the law,” Burneson said. “She left feeling much more relaxed about the process.

“I think a lot of young lawyers may hesitate to do pro bono work because they don’t know all the answers yet. But law school teaches you how to find the answers and how to think about things. It’s also good to remember that the need for pro bono services is so great that if you don’t take on a client, that client is probably not going to have any representation.”

You might connect with an issue you’re passionate about.

Burneson said her pro bono work typically falls into one of two categories: services that align with her practice and work that is outside her specialty but involves an issue she’s passionate about.

One of her current passion projects began when she was in law school and met Tara Casey, director of Richmond Law’s Carrico Center for Pro Bono and Public Service. Through the center, Burneson got involved with the Trans Law Collaborative, a partnership with the Virginia Equality Bar Association and Equality Virginia that mobilizes lawyers and law students to assist trans and nonbinary clients in changing their names and gender markers on government documents.

“The name change clinics were something that I personally cared a lot about and wanted to help with,” she said. “It started with a passion, and I figured out the skills.”

For Sarah Warner, L’05, eviction diversion has been a longtime interest. In 2019, GRBF partnered with Housing Opportunities Made Equal and Central Virginia Legal Aid Society to launch the Eviction Diversion Program after Richmond was identified as having the second-highest eviction rate in the U.S. Warner represented her firm, ThompsonMcMullan, at EDP trainings and events and set aside time every week to represent clients in court.

The EDP recruits volunteer lawyers to assist residents once they’ve received an unlawful detainer but before they’re evicted. The volunteers draft a payment plan to submit to the courts and request a continuance. Residents also receive monetary assistance to help catch up on back rent.

Warner said eviction diversion pro bono work was an easy fit thanks to her work as a transactional attorney, as well as her husband’s work with HOME and other nonprofits addressing affordable housing in Virginia. It was also a chance to form relationships with community members who shared her interests.

“I now primarily work by myself,” said Warner, who recently received the John C. Kenny Pro Bono Award from the Richmond Bar Association for her work in eviction diversion. “But I feel like pro bono work has connected me to nonprofits and larger firms that I wouldn’t have worked with otherwise. And I enjoyed the connections with other volunteer attorneys and meeting with my clients.”

Pro bono work has connected me to nonprofits and larger firms that I wouldn’t have worked with otherwise.
Sarah B. Warner, L'05, left; Allison Held, L'96, right
[Sometimes] all it requires is a five-minute phone call to make a difference for someone who doesn't have access and can't afford a lawyer.

Your passion project might become your career.

During her 19 years with the State Corporation Commission, Allison Held, L’96, focused her practice on energy law and telecommunications and worked as a legal adviser to the commission chairman. But she also pursued frequent pro bono work in the community, including serving on the board of CancerLINC.

As part of her work with CancerLINC, Held started reading about medical-legal partnerships, or MLPs. Like CancerLINC, MLPs pair volunteer lawyers with patients — but rather than work through an external organization, the attorneys collaborate directly with a hospital.

She approached a fellow board member and executive from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center, and they agreed to bring CancerLINC training and staff on-site as an early MLP. They initially focused on cancer patients but later expanded to provide services to children and families at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond.

The Massey MLP operated in a volunteer capacity for several years, but they continued to receive requests to serve patients in other areas of the hospital. In 2017, Held approached the MCV Foundation at VCU with an offer to take a one-year sabbatical to create a strategic business plan and organizational structure for a formal MLP within VCU Health. Her plan was approved and funded, and the MLP launched with full on-site services in early 2018. Held was invited to stay on and now serves as the director of the MLP and associate general counsel.

Held said the MLP has grown to serve nine different patient populations at VCU, and they have two community locations. They work with six legal partners in the community, including Richmond Law students enrolled in the Aging and Disability Law Practicum class. She said relatively simple tasks — like following up with a landlord about addressing mold or bedbugs after they’ve ignored letters from doctors — can lead to meaningful action for their clients.

“We provide free legal services to low-income patients and families,” she said. “We address social determinants of health, such as safe and stable housing, access to food and medicine, and public benefits. Our lawyers provide services in almost every area of civil law.”

VCU Health, along with McGuireWoods and Dominion Energy, received the 2022 CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award from the Pro Bono Institute for the MLP. The award recognizes innovative collaborations between in-house legal departments, law firms, and public interest organizations. She nods to her colleagues at VCU who are committed to the MLP’s mission and serving all patients — a passion she shares.

“As much as I loved working for the SCC, I find the MLP to be so much more in line with what I have been passionate about in my career,” she said. “It’s very meaningful to see the impact that we’ve had on patients and our providers and our community through the work that we’re doing.

“I feel really lucky that I was able to find that in my career.”

Whatever your pro bono service looks like, you have much to offer your community.

All four alumni were quick to say that attorneys have a set of skills that aren’t universally accessible and that something as small as a letter or a phone call can make a big difference to a client.

Held, who volunteered for CancerLINC in law school and briefly worked for the organization before joining the SCC, said she was often moved by the stories of her clients. She described one young woman who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given about nine months to live. The patient’s employers sent flowers to her hospital room one day and a termination letter the next.

“She had worked for them for 10 years and just wanted to live the rest of her life with some income so she could spend time with her family,” Held said. “I went to bat for her, and it didn’t take very long, or much effort, to get her Social Security disability income.

An illustration depicting a pair of hands holding the scales of justice, delivering htem to another set of upturned hands. Paperwork for things like evictions, legal name changes, and FMLA paperwork, are in the background.“Some cases really are that simple. All it requires is a five-minute phone call to make a difference for someone who doesn’t have access and can’t afford a lawyer.”

Warner said pro bono work takes on an even deeper meaning when it leads to changes that ripple out beyond a single client. For instance, she and other lawyers involved with the EDP have developed connections with a handful of landlords around Richmond. She mentioned one in particular that had good relationships with his tenants — and often knew when they were struggling. He also recognized that an eviction could limit tenants’ future housing options and wanted to avoid it when possible. So he started proactively contacting the EDP to refer tenants who were behind in their rent.

“It felt like such a huge win,” Warner said. “Part of the obstacle with eviction diversion is getting to the landlords because they’re not required by statute to do this except in limited cases. Most of the program hinges on the landlord agreeing to participate.”

She added that simply speaking up is a significant step; for EDP clients, it’s often the only thing that will slow down an eviction hearing.

“There’s nothing you can do that hurts the situation,” she said. “You can only help.”