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Pro bono and the relativity of personal problems

Everyone has problems. The problems may arise from work or family or friends. It could be your health, a car that starts only 99.9 percent of the time or a household pet. For me, as an attorney, husband, father and active member of various bar organizations, my problems probably do not differ from other lawyers. A co-worker and I, in an attempt to put our lives into perspective, refer to our problems as “rich-people problems.”

(As an aside, I would not consider myself “rich.” I am part of the 99 percent, constantly concerned about the financial state of the Siri household, but the term “rich-people problems” has a much better ring that “upper-middle-class problems” or “hoping to eventually be part of the 1 percent but not there yet problems.”)

My personal problems include: suffering Achilles tendonitis because of over-training for my spring marathon, debating between refinancing to a 20 year or 30 year mortgage, deciding whether to hold our oldest son back one year before kindergarten so he will be the oldest in his class (see Outliers) and figuring out how to balance the additional (non-billable) responsibilities of partnership at my law firm.

Obviously, these are all things very important to me but nothing earth shattering for others. Recently, however, I experienced a situation that put all of my problems in perspective.

This year, I have decided to dedicate all of my pro bono hours to the Homeless Persons Representation Project’s criminal expungement program. The law on criminal expungement in Maryland is straightforward and you can help a number of individuals without an extensive time commitment per case. Each case takes between an hour or two, which includes research, filling out the forms, meeting with clients and filing the requests.

During my second round of client interviews, I met a man who had never been convicted of a crime (and he also shared the same birthday of one of my children, which made him more notable to me). A very nice guy with a couple of charges on his record, but again, no convictions.  He went back to school and got a technical degree but was having a difficult time finding a job because of the results of a criminal background check. We had a nice talk and filled out most of the paperwork, but I needed to draft another motion in which he would have to sign. I got his email address and told him that I would email him in the next day or two.

A couple of days later, I sent him an email: “Attached is the draft of the Petition. Please review and contact me if you have any questions. If the facts are accurate, can you please sign at the bottom and mail to my attention.” No response.  One week later, I sent a follow-up email: “I wanted to follow up to see if you have had a chance to sign the verification and mail it back to me.  As soon as we get it, we will file with the Court.” No response. Somewhat frustrated, I sent another email and leave a voicemail message.

I eventually received a voicemail message from my client: “Mr. Siri, we met a few week ago. I’m the one with the same birthday as your son. I have gotten your emails and I want to sign it, but I don’t know how to sign it on the computer. Can you give me a call back? Thanks for your help.”

BAM! In my somewhat sheltered existence, where I have decided to go paperless by using my iPad and grown accustomed to having technology at my disposal, I did not even realize that he did not have access to a printer. I did not realize that some people’s problems are things that I take for granted when I walk into my office each day.

My client’s problem is he doesn’t have resources at his disposal. My client’s problem is he doesn’t understand how the legal system works and need me to help him. My client’s problem is he wants to get a job that pays him a living wage so he can help support his children. As his attorney, my client’s problems are now my problems. I quickly returned his call and told him that I would sent a hard copy by mail with a self addressed stamped envelope. Everything has been filed and we are awaiting word from the court.

In retrospect, this is one of the reasons why I do pro bono work. It centers me and shows me that, relative to others, I need to appreciate what I have. It also makes me want to work harder for my clients, so they can have a fair shot.


  1. Much respect to you both for your good example and your important insights. Recently I had the occasion to represent a woman who was not homeless, but had suffered a stroke, owned no phone, could not drive and lived 100 miles from my office. Just getting her to execute documents was a real challenge, one with which Social Services could not help.

  2. Solid and inspirational.
    Salute to you, and thanks for the piece.