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Pro Bono Net is partnering with Martindale-Hubbell Connected to promote pro bono April 16-30. Below is the fourth in a series of guest blog posts on Pro Bono Net's Connected group, contributed by Laren Spirer, Pro Bono Manager at Debevoise & Plimpton. Join Connected to read the rest of the series in coming days.
The first person who inspired me to do work for the public good was someone I never met – Margaret Sanger. Learning about her work promoting reproductive rights way beyond her time was one of the reasons I went to law school in the first place; my grand plan was to have a thriving career in reproductive rights work and run Planned Parenthood someday. Now, as many of us know, life doesn’t always follow the path you set forth in your mind at age 19, and my path ultimately led to a career in pro bono.
Along that path, I have met many people who inspire me to set lofty goals for myself, to build the career I want, and to make a difference in the community. Sadly, two of those people are no longer with us, but they were inspirational to me and to many they encountered during their lives.
I met Tanya Neiman when I joined Pro Bono Net in 1999. She was on the Board of Directors and was the Executive Director of the San Francisco Bar Association’s Volunteer Legal Services Program. Tanya went out of her way to support my work at PBN and made herself available to me as a mentor and guide. As Tanya was in San Francisco and I was in New York, we didn’t see each other all that often, but during the times our paths crossed, I saw her speak on and moderate panels throughout the legal community, and it was clear that her drive, style and vision impacted everyone around her. I remember during one particularly challenging point in my career, I called her for advice, which she gave without hesitation. When she passed away in 2006 after a long and furious battle with cancer, I sat in a room at the Equal Justice Conference with others in the pro bono and public interest community who shared stories of her passion for legal services, her willingness to go the extra mile, and her love of a fine meal (something also near and dear to my heart).
Hanna Cohn and I also met during my time at Pro Bono Net when she was the Executive Director of the Volunteer Legal Services Project in Rochester. Her enthusiasm for her work seemed limitless, and during my visits she went out of her way to make me feel welcome, even driving me to and from the airport and letting me bide some time on her porch with her family while waiting for a later flight one early evening. After I commented on how delicious the after-school snack she had made for her son looked (peanut butter and chocolate chips on a banana), she gave it to me and made him another. I told her a story at one point about how I collect cheesy magnets from every place I visit, and out of the blue one day a silver Elvis magnet arrived in the mail – a gift from Hanna from a trip to Graceland. I flew to Rochester in 2002 to attend her memorial service, and was amazed to find an enormous room filled to the brim with probably three hundred or more people, all there to pay tribute to a woman who had touched them directly or indirectly through her work on behalf of low-income Rochester residents, her service in the community, her generosity, and her kindness.
As my path has wound from Pro Bono Net on to my current position as the Pro Bono Manager at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, I take stock every so often and ask myself if my career is going in the direction I want it to go and if there’s more I can do to improve my work so that ultimately more low-income people have access to legal services. When I do this, I always think of Tanya and Hanna, who were incredible role models of the type of person I aspire to be both professionally and personally, and who had such a meaningful impact on the pro bono and public interest community. They inspired me and so many others during their too-short lives, and continue to do so each day.
- Pro Bono / Legal Services