ATJ Pro Bono Champion
Keri Brown is a partner in Baker Botts in Houston, where she focuses on tax litigation and gift and estate tax matters. A firm believer in access to justice, Brown is the pro bono chair at her office and answered the call to those in need of help in post-Harvey Houston. Photograph courtesy of Keri Brown.
Hurricane Harvey hits. What spurred you into action?
I was safe at home with my family, getting my two children ready for bed on the Tuesday after Harvey hit, when one of our associates sent me a text from the George R. Brown Convention Center, where she was volunteering to help the Harvey survivors who had taken up shelter there. She had come across a representative of Lone Star Legal Aid who was there working to get a legal aid booth set up. Lone Star Legal Aid’s office had caught fire the day before and the staff didn’t have access to supplies or their server to communicate with volunteers. I was put in contact with one of the senior staff members, who gave us carte blanche to organize a volunteer lawyer schedule, and over the next two days, we recruited 79 lawyers to volunteer at the GRB, NRG Park, Toyota Center, and Lakewood Church.
What were some of the pro bono services you offered? Are you still working with people displaced by Harvey today?
The immediate need for many of the survivors at the shelters included applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, assistance; obtaining replacements of important identity documents (e.g., driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, birth certificates); and applying for disaster or replacement Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits, insurance issues, and landlord/tenant issues. Since then, our lawyers have taken on FEMA appeals and landlord/tenant cases. One of our lawyers wrote an amicus brief arguing against a FEMA rule that prohibited grants for disaster-related expenses to houses of worship; FEMA has since withdrawn their 20-year-old rule. It was exciting to see real change happen before our eyes.
Aside from hurricane relief, what is a pro bono experience that stands out?
Two experiences stand out. I have had the opportunity since 2012 to represent a child from Central America on behalf of Kids in Need of Defense in seeking asylum. We have made good progress on this. We are waiting on one final step and he should have permanent residency. For many asylum seekers, an asylum denial is tantamount to a death sentence if they are returned to their home country and are unwilling to join a gang and turn to a life of crime (although that also sometimes is a death sentence), and it is critically important that people fleeing instability have lawyers on their side. The second involves our firm’s work with Texas Appleseed. The first project that I coordinated involved surveying Texas stakeholders on various issues affecting the elderly. Following that, Texas Appleseed asked us to take the lead on creating guides for caregivers in five fiduciary roles. Our team handled this project (the guides are available at www.protecttheirmoneytx.org) and for our work, Texas Appleseed awarded the firm with its 2016 Pro Bono Leadership award.
Where did you get the inspiration to take cases on at no cost?
My background on the other side of the economic spectrum guides my work. Growing up, my brother and I benefited from Texas’ free lunch program for schoolchildren. Wearing donated clothes (and, for a time, not having electricity) was a way of life. I recall being 8 years old, riding a Greyhound bus from Bastrop to Waco with my family, when a random, kind stranger delivered a bag of snacks to our seats so we would have something to eat on the trip—being the younger child, I probably complained the loudest when I was hungry. I remember what it was like to not be able to afford the basic necessities. I also remember eventually learning not to ask for things, because we just couldn’t afford it.
Why should attorneys be more involved with pro bono work?
Access to justice is an integral part of our legal fabric. Lawyers are among the most highly educated members of society and occupy a unique role in providing access to the courtroom. One letter sent on a lawyer’s letterhead often can accomplish more than a non-lawyer can accomplish in months of back-and-forth in a minor legal dispute. We hold the keys to justice, and everyone should have an opportunity to have those doors opened for them.TBJ
The ATJ Pro Bono Champion is a quarterly feature highlighting the work of an attorney chosen by the Texas Access to Justice Commission. Recipients represent diverse practice and geographic areas and are selected based on their volume of and length of time spent on pro bono work. To learn more about pro bono work in Texas or to get involved, go to probonotexas.org.