Pro Bono Work—It’s a Blast!
by Evelyn Fielding Lopez
When I was a new attorney at the Washington state Attorney General’s Office (1990), I was in court almost every week handling unemployment cases across the state. It was fun—more than fun—it was a blast. The cases were always interesting glimpses into other lives, and arguing before the judge was challenging and kept me on my toes.
Years passed and I promoted to other work, and then into management. After more than 20 years with my office I find myself in charge of a very large division of attorneys, and advising the Director of a major state agency. My legal work is mostly going to meetings, drafting statutory language, and helping other attorneys strategize on cases. It’s stressful, and also satisfying, and I’m good at it. But I wouldn’t say it’s a blast.
A couple of years ago I realized I was in a mid-career “is this all there is?” funk, and I started trying to find ways to increase the fun of being a lawyer.
I tried taking a few cases at work, but found that court deadlines and briefing schedules did not mesh with the daily emergencies and crisis management of my work. What I really needed was something time-limited and totally different from my daily routine. My answer was the Housing Justice Program run by our local volunteer legal services program.
I started volunteering every other month at HJP. This entailed showing up on a Friday morning for the unlawful detainer (eviction) calendar, reviewing the files for that morning, meeting with clients who wanted assistance and helping them. During the height of the housing melt-down and economic collapse we had 10 or more cases on the calendar each week. It was triage legal work, but critically needed. The clients were facing one of the worst experiences of their lives, and the volunteer lawyers made everything better. Sometimes we could negotiate a reasonable exit for the tenant who had stopped paying rent, sometimes we could negotiate a payment plan to keep them in their home, sometimes all we could do was stand up next to them before the judge so that they would have someone on their side. It was different world with different challenges and required quick wits and quick action. It was a thrill ride with something new around every turn.
These days I volunteer one Friday a month. The calendar is quieter, but we’ve been providing more advice to people with housing issues in between the court cases. I’ve even taken a few direct representation cases for people who are in disputes with their landlords. I am in court as often as I want to be, and I help real people with real problems, and it’s really fun—in fact, it’s a blast!
Have you ever hit a career "funk"? What did you do to break it?
About the Author:
Evelyn Fielding Lopez is the Division Chief for the Labor and Industries Division of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. Ms. Lopez advises the Director of the Department of Labor and Industries, and she is involved in a wide variety of cases and issues.
Ms. Lopez supervises attorneys and professional staff in Seattle and Olympia and she is a member of the Attorney General’s Leadership Team. She joined the Attorney General’s Office in 1990, and until 1998 she represented the Employment Security Department, the Department of Social and Health Services, and the Department of Labor and Industries.
In 1998, Ms. Lopez left the AGO to become an Administrative Law Judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings, but rejoined the AGO in 1999 as an Assistant Attorney General representing the Department of Retirement Systems. From 2001 to 2005, Ms. Lopez was the Division Chief of the Government Operations Division.
Ms. Lopez actively volunteers for the Housing Justice Project in Thurston County, and she is on the board of Thurston County Volunteer Legal Services.