My first exposure to pro bono was when I was a teenager, circa 1968. My dad was a sole practitioner in Mineral Point. Mineral Point is a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Dad had a general practice, which meant he did whatever type of law his clients needed – civil litigation, criminal and traffic defense, probate, estate planning, divorce, real estate, taxes, and appeals. Additionally, he served a couple of terms as the Iowa County District Attorney, which at that time was a part-time job.
Patrick J. Fiedler, Marquette 1980, is a litigator with Axley Brynelson LLP, in Madison.
"My dad was a sole practitioner in Mineral Point – a small town where everyone knows everyone else and where deciding whether to provide pro bono legal help is easy."
Dad’s office was on High Street (Mineral Point’s main street) on the second floor above the Farmers Savings Bank. His office door had frosted glass with “James P. Fiedler – Attorney at Law” stenciled on it. The door had a transom window above it. You entered into the reception area, which had several chairs and a railing separating it from the secretary’s area and two inner offices. The reception area had bookcases filled with different tomes of law. If it was summer, the window air conditioner would be going full blast. If it was winter, the wall radiator would be quietly making it comfortable enough for you to remove your overcoat. Evelyn, the long-time secretary – this was before the advent of legal assistants – would greet you. You would then start up a conversation with the other clients who were waiting to see their lawyer. Eventually, it was your turn.
You went through a swinging gate and a door to get into dad’s office. His office fronted High Street and looked out on the Ben Franklin five and dime store. Once inside, you spoke with complete confidence to a man who knew many secrets but kept them all to himself. These conversations, after all, were protected by attorney-client privilege. But this being a small town, I did find out certain things about some of dad’s clients. One such client was Betty.
Betty (not her real name) was one of dad’s pro bono clients. She was married and had several children. Her husband Bob (not his real name) did not work. This was by his choice. Bob was a drunk (back then we said “drunk,” not “alcoholic”). Bob was also a wife beater. Today we refer to that as domestic abuse. The family was poor.
Betty wanted a divorce. Betty needed a lawyer because the legal system was something that she could not begin to comprehend, much less navigate on her own. Betty had no money and no way to get any money. Betty went to see my dad.
Dad took Betty’s case. He did so knowing that he would never receive any monetary compensation. This was something that did not concern him at all. Betty, after all, was a human being who needed the type of help that he was qualified to provide. From dad’s standpoint, the decision to take Betty on as his client was an easy one to make. Simply put, Betty needed a lawyer.
To be continued.