ATJ Pro Bono Champion
The ATJ Pro Bono Champion is a quarterly feature highlighting the work of an attorney chosen by the Texas Access to Justice Commission. To learn more about pro bono work in Texas or to get involved, go to probonotexas.org.
John C. VanBuskirk
Dallas-based John C. VanBuskirk’s resume paints the picture of a restless jack-of-all-trades whose career has spanned 40-plus years in the U.S. Army, real estate industry, and as of 2018, the legal profession. Then there are the pro bono hours—hundreds in just over a year since he became an attorney at 71. For VanBuskirk—always on the quest to learn—the opportunity to volunteer his legal skills is also the opportunity to pick up new ones in different practice areas. Photo courtesy of John C. Vanbuskirk.
Is there a pro bono spirit that runs through each chapter of your working life so far?
Yes, definitely. It really starts with my father. He was a career military officer and we moved around a lot. He always wanted us in Boy Scouts so my older brother and I were always in Scouts. When we moved to Prattville, Alabama, there was no Scout troop so Dad started one. So it comes from an environment of my father both giving in service to his country and giving to the community that we lived in.
You have a little more than 200 pro bono hours at the public
defender’s office in Dallas and over 100 at the Dallas Volunteer
Attorney Program. What do those hours consist of?
So far this year, I have 209 hours with the public defender’s office and 141 hours with DVAP, so I’ve got about 350 hours total. The 209 hours I worked with the public defender’s office were in misdemeanor court, and I was doing things like sitting in on interviews for folks who are incarcerated. They have waiting rooms in the courtroom and you talk to them through the glass. But most of the time, I was talking to folks who were out on bond. If they had met the conditions for the program they were in and were eligible for dismissal, I would get the dismissal done, get it signed by the district attorney’s office, submit it to the judge for the judge’s signature, take it to the county clerk, and then hand the dismissal to the client. Oftentimes, there were things that needed additional evidence or maybe the DA was in court and we couldn’t access them on the day the individual showed up. So I’d give them a pass slip that resets their court dates. I was just doing whatever I could to help the assigned assistant public defender. Most of the time I was at County Criminal Court No. 9.
Is it common in pro bono work in the beginning to pick up
areas you may not be familiar with?
I think it’s one of the real benefits of it. When you get out of law school, you know quite a bit about the law, but what you don’t know is exactly which form and format do you file to do this particular thing right here. That’s largely what working with DVAP provided me. They sent me all the forms. They sent me a PowerPoint presentation on wills and powers of attorney; I refreshed myself on some things that I knew and learned some new things. Then they provided me with two mentor attorneys. With the first couple of wills, I figured out how to do 85% of it based on what they sent me. But there’d be another 15% that I wasn’t quite sure on how to word something so I would fire it over to the mentor attorney, who would say, “OK, this is what you do.” With subsequent wills and powers of attorney I would work on, I would ask them less and less. The past couple I’ve done, I might have an odd question, but for the most part, I just do the wills now.
You’ve also done about 800 hours as a law
My 10th day of law school was the first day that I did a legal clinic with DVAP. I thought, I don’t have anything as a first-year law student I can put on my resume as far as working on a law review or being in an organization because we don’t have any. But I can do pro bono work. I did 31 legal clinics my first year.
What keeps you working pro bono and why should others
I meet people who have so little in life, and when they come into the clinics, they’re not asking you to straighten their lives out. They’re just asking for a fair shake. When I was a law student two-and-a-half years ago, a gentleman came in and he was a homeless quadriplegic. For him to sign his documents, he has a pen he can access with his mouth. He had Social Security benefits that were being paid to him, but since he’s a homeless quadriplegic, he had no way to actually go get the money. He had to have what is called a paid representative to receive his money. The paid representative he had was stealing his money.
You know what the last four words of the Pledge of Allegiance are? “And justice for all.” Take a room full of people. Let’s say everybody in this room is charged with exactly the same thing and half of the people in the room have the financial wherewithal to be able to hire an attorney and the other does not. The question is, Are the scales of justice equal? The answer is no. What is the answer to equalizing the scales of justice? The answer is pro bono work.TBJ