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When it comes to pro bono work, no more excuses

Growing up, we had two large oak trees in front of our home. As summer turned into autumn each year, the leaves would fall, creating a massive amount of raking and bagging. When I was about 6 or 7, two men knocked on the door to ask if we were interested in having our leaves raked and bagged.

Now, my father and mother, the two most industrious people I know, worked around the clock to ensure that my two sisters and I had a roof over our head, food on the table, and as stable a childhood a kid could ask for. And the two men offering the leaf services were speaking to my dad after a long night waiting tables and only a couple hours until he was off to help my mother with her shift at the convenience store. So my dad negotiated a price and the men set off to work.

This part is a bit hazy for me. I recall a dispute between my father and the two men regarding the quality of the work. I recall racial slurs directed toward my father and my family. I recall the police being called. My inability to fully comprehend the dispute made the entire incident less scary to me (and less real). As a young kid, I just went about the rest of my day.

The following morning, however, we woke up to fresh spray paint across the side of our house: “CHINK FACE,” it read, along with a hastily crafted picture of a smiling face, the dots for eyes replaced by two slanted dashes.

My parents, again being industrious people, simply proceeded to buy some paint remover and rubber gloves, gave their three kids a bucket, and directed my sisters and I to scrub the words and picture off the wall. The family never talked about it. We did not have a family meeting to discuss how we felt. We just went on with life.

Unfortunately, the words and the pictures did not come completely off the side of our house. For years, I had the ever present reminder I was different, a minority, and, to some, unwelcomed.

Eventually, through the passage of time, the words and picture faded. Eventually, my parents performed home renovations, which covered up the ever-so-faint trace of racism permanently affixed to my childhood home. Despite the passage of time and the effects of the elements and the covering of the words, however, I can still see the words. I can still remember the smell of paint remover. I can still recall trying to explain to my friends, when they came over, what happened.

This incident, probably more so than any other specific incident in my youth, has shaped the way I look at the world, the way I practice law, and the way I want to raise my children. In a year with such political divisiveness and, frankly, so much hate, the importance of the rule of law, access to justice, and pro bono cannot be overlooked. We need to be empathetic. We need to be heroes. We need to be champions.

The reason that I bring this up is because I have an admission to make, something that I am not proud to admit: I do not believe that I have done a single hour of pro bono this year. Where did the summer go? Is it really almost Halloween? What have I done this year? Between billing hours, representing clients and raising two kids, the year has been a blur.

But this is simply an excuse. No more excuses. It is time to help. Somewhere, in Maryland, a person without the means needs help. She might be a victim of domestic violence. He may be a veteran who has been denied his benefits. They may be a family facing foreclosure. Or it may be a child, spending his afternoon scrubbing racial slurs off the side of his house.