ATJ Pro Bono Champion October 2021
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.
Sara E. Dysart
Interview by Eric Quitugua
Photos courtesy of Josh Huskin
Sara Dysart, one of San Antonio’s first woman solo practitioners with a commercial real estate law practice, has spent her pro bono efforts helping people retain their right to stay in their homes.
In what ways did your upbringing shape your law career?
I grew up on the south side of San Antonio. Although no one in my family had attended college, I wanted to be an attorney since sixth grade. I did not tell anyone about this aspiration until years later because it seemed so far out of reach. My world opened up when I attended Incarnate Word High School, an hour’s public bus ride from home. Inspired by teachers who emphasized the value of a college degree, I resolved to seek higher education for one very important reason—I would always be able to take care of myself. I am now a solo practitioner and am certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in commercial real estate law. My interest in real estate law was shaped by my experience as a law student selling condominiums during the summer after my first year and as editor of the St. Mary’s Law Journal symposium issue focusing on real estate finance.
How did you get started with pro bono work at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid?
Several years ago, an attorney with TRLA contacted me to be the mediator on a dispute involving real estate issues. When she asked me if I would consider charging a reduced rate, my response was that I would offer my mediation services at no charge. Immediately after mediating the first case, I was contacted by another attorney at TRLA with the same request. My response was the same then and each time I am contacted to serve in this capacity.
What are the recurring legal issues you’re seeing in real estate?
Clients seeking pro bono legal services on real estate matters are usually faced with challenges to their rights to remain in their homes or apartments. Legal issues involving clients’ homes involve title or financing. Often a client will be living in a home that he or she obtained from a relative, but no transfer documents were delivered and filed of public record and/or probate proceeding opened. Clients face legal issues when they acquire a home through seller financing or a contract for deed. In most of these cases, clients were not represented by counsel when they purchased the property and did not close the transaction through a title company. Clients living in rented homes and apartments can be subject to eviction proceedings. Legislation addressing the inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 has placed moratoriums on many residential evictions and provided funding sources for the payment of rent. This legislation has created the need for legal assistance for clients to seek these benefits.
How do you balance time between your normal workload and pro bono cases?
I start each day with a list of client matters that I have to address, and a list of client matters that I would like to address. I work on the “have to address” matters first; and then move to those matters I “would like to address.” Daily, one or more of the “would like to address” matters become “have to address” matters. My pro bono cases fit into these two categories and are treated accordingly with my other clients.
What pro bono case stands out the most to you?
The pro bono experience that stands out the most to me is working with the San Antonio Legal Services Association to organize and implement a “Remote Wills Clinic” for health care workers during the summer of 2020. Under the leadership of Chair Robert Soza and Executive Director Sarah Dingivan, a plan was put in place to determine the need for health care workers to execute wills and ancillary documents. As the program was ramping up, over 250 health care workers at University Hospital signed up immediately. Serving on the subcommittee building the dynamic “Remote Wills Clinic,” Board Member Mary Brennan Stich reached out to her friends from law school, Faye Bracey and me. Mary and I reached out to our colleagues. Over a weekend, a list of 27 attorney volunteers grew to 300 plus. One of Mary’s calls was to Laura O’Donnell, a partner at Haynes and Boone, who recruited 80 of her law firm’s attorneys, located in offices from coast to coast. In a matter of weeks, over 500 health care workers executed wills and ancillary documents based upon one-on-one engagements with attorneys who often served two or more clients. The experience was magical!
What do you like about pro bono cases?
Along with nearly 107,000-plus Texas attorneys, I am uniquely qualified to provide legal assistance to other citizens who cannot afford to pay market rates for legal services but are entitled to access to justice and equal protection under the law. Participation in the delivery of pro bono legal services as an advocate, mediator, or organizer allows me to do my part to make this constitutional right a reality for those who are served by my efforts and, most importantly, the efforts of others whom I support.
Why should new attorneys do pro bono work? What will make them successful at it?
A State Bar of Texas Board of Directors’ resolution broadly defining legal services to the poor, states: “that each Texas attorney should aspire to render at least 50 hours of legal services to the poor each year, or make an equivalent financial contribution to an organization that provides legal services to the poor.” I am confident that most Texas attorneys are unaware of this aspirational resolution but meet or exceed this benchmark. Every bar association that I have worked with sponsors ways for its members to provide pro bono legal services and financial support. Many attorneys contribute financially to the Texas Access to Justice Commission, the Texas Bar Foundation, and other bar foundations knowing that funds will be used to support access to justice. The State Bar should champion the significant contributions of Texas attorneys. Public awareness of Texas attorneys’ contributions to access to justice is the perfect antidote to every lawyer joke.TBJ