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Pro Bono Net

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Oct. 26 - The Feeling was Tremendous – Fabio Bertoni, VP/Deputy General Counsel, ALM

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net has lined up a variety of guest bloggers from law firms, legal aid organizations and elsewhere to share their pro bono ideas and experiences. This post comes from Fabio Bertoni, Vice President/Deputy General Counsel at ALM Media.

Shortly after I graduated law school and began work at a Wall Street law firm, I ran into a former high school teacher of mine, the writer Frank McCourt. After I reminded him of who I was (I apparently didn't leave much of an impression as a student) he asked what I was doing with myself. I told him that I recently became a lawyer. "That's fine," McCourt responded. "There are plenty of poor people who need lawyers," and he walked off.

Of course, at the time, I was not representing poor people, but was spending virtually every waking hour working on large litigations for larger companies. While those cases were often fascinating and I learned a tremendous amount working on them, McCourt's comment stayed with me. I knew that I was hardly the only lawyer those clients could turn to. As it happened, my firm had a robust pro bono program and I got involved in a number of cases.

One of the most memorable cases that I worked on involved the theft of dozens of paintings. For years our client, the quintessential "starving artist," rented a cramped studio on the far West Side of Manhattan, and the landlord let her store paintings in the basement. Too late, she discovered that the superintendent of the building had been stealing her paintings from the basement and selling them. Almost three years of her work was gone. The superintendent promptly fled the country and the landlord refused to compensate the artist for the loss, even when confronted with evidence that the managing agent of the building had known of the ongoing thefts. In fact, the landlord refused even to respond to numerous efforts to discuss settlement of the case.

With no hope of settling, we prepared fully for trial, from drafting jury voir dire questions to closing statements. But the morning of jury selection, the lawyer for the landlord (who only recently had been given the case) quickly reversed course, and agreed to our opening settlement demand. After we left court, the artist broke down in tears, mourning the loss of years of her work, but grateful for the formal acknowledgment that her work had real value. The settlement amount was more money than she had ever had at one time, and would permit her to keep working.

The feeling of having been able to directly help someone who had not been able to otherwise get any justice was tremendous. In virtually all of the pro bono cases I've handled, in housing court, SSI disability hearings and others, the client would not have received any legal help at all if I hadn't volunteered. Representing such clients, many at critical moments in their lives, has made me feel as though I was, at least partially, living up to my old teacher's standards.

Fabio Bertoni is Vice President, Deputy General Counsel at ALM Media, where he's worked since 2006. He joined the company from Hughes Hubbard & Reed, where he was an associate in the litigation department. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Fordham University School of Law. ALM is a corporate sponsor of Pro Bono Net and its CEO, William Pollak, is chairman of Pro Bono Net's Board of Directors.

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