Pro Bono Experience: A Foundation for Career Transitions

by Amy Miller & Kevin Myles

originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of The Oregon State Bar Bulletin (

There are many reasons to spend time volunteering. Most obviously, volunteering is about helping others and positively impacting people’s welfare and happiness. However, volunteering can be an enriching experience for the volunteer, too — the perfect mechanism for developing a new skill or exploring an untapped interest. Volunteering within the legal community is an ideal conduit to navigate a career transition.

The tremendous need for pro bono legal representation translates to a wide variety of opportunities for attorneys, and many programs across the state offer training, materials and support for attorneys who choose to engage in pro bono practice. For some, what begins as a volunteer commitment leads to a professional transition. New insights and experiences don’t necessarily end when a case closes; they can be the first step in an exciting and unimagined direction.

Kellie Johnson, a former Multnomah County assistant district attorney, is now assistant disciplinary counsel for the Oregon State Bar. “I would have been delighted to have a lifelong career as a prosecutor,” she says, “And yet, my participation on the Board of Governors of the Oregon State Bar took me on an unanticipated journey.”

Johnson was elected to the Board of Govenors for Region 5 in January 2008 and served the next two years representing the Portland metro-area legal community. She seized the opportunity, noting, “It was unusual for a prosecutor who is engaged daily in trial work to serve on the board… they usually don’t get the time to serve due to the hectic work schedule until after leaving the district attorney’s office.”

Johnson found herself outside her normal sphere of criminal law and had an opportunity to work with attorneys who practiced across a broad section of the legal field. As chair of the Membership Services Committee, she worked to improve the quality of justice in a different manner than as trial counsel in criminal proceedings. Initially she had another role on the board, to “explore and communicate the bar’s diversity policy with various communities, both legal and municipal, across the entire state.” In presenting diversity, Johnson was just one of a wide group of lawyers, judges and community leaders who were improving justice in ways that touch people more intimately. She found she really enjoyed working with people in a more personal capacity and relished the chance to give a voice to different groups and promote awareness of different cultural norms.

As a result of her board service, Johnson sought a position that she believed would allow her to serve a wider purpose. “In my role as disciplinary counsel, I can improve how legal services are delivered,” Johnson points out, “and I can make a client whole and make a lawyer at least more aware of the consequences of certain actions.”

Johnson remarks on the many ways this volunteer service has shaped her legal career. It has “enhanced my networking skills, given me a broader perspective on the legal community in Oregon, reinforced my desire to support diversity and inclusion efforts within the legal profession, introduced me to some of my closest friends, and inspired me to continue to serve our legal community with any and all the talents I have.”

Eric Kearney started his legal career in Oregon volunteering for Legal Aid Services while looking for work in criminal law. One of his first pro bono experiences involved providing general legal information at a local senior center. When he arrived at the senior center, he was nervous and unsure what to expect. What he found was a vulnerable population that lacked a voice, clients who were enjoyable to work with and many interesting and amazing stories.

From that point on, Kearney’s legal practice turned towards elder law. Though pro bono work for Legal Aid’s Senior Law Project he developed the foundational knowledge and confidence needed to practice elder law. Moreover, he “met many sole practitioners through my volunteer experience who were willing to mentor me with the pro bono cases. These individuals were also willing to help me out as I started my own practice.” Guidance and assistance from a network of attorneys developed through volunteering gave him the confidence to open his own elder law practice.

An attorney whom he met through his volunteer experiences suggested he apply for a position at Fitzwater Meyer. In 2010, Kearney joined Fitzwater Meyer, practicing elder law.

He continues to volunteer through Legal Aid while working as an attorney at the firm. “Pro bono work is a win-win. Clients who need an attorney receive one, and attorneys gain valuable experience.” Through the pro bono experience Kearney developed an invaluable and supportive network of attorneys. “Contact with the attorneys I met though the Senior Law Project convinced me that I wanted to practice elder law. The attorneys I met were professional, generous with their time, and extremely helpful.”

Kearney encourages recent law school graduates to get involved with pro bono projects. “My volunteer experience led directly to where I am today. One of the best ways to develop experience and a supportive network is through helping others.”

Barbara Rost reached her current position as a program director at the Classroom Law Project in a round-about manner. After graduating from law school in 1984, she spent seven years as field representative for Westlaw, teaching attorneys, judges and others how to use Westlaw. She then worked briefly as an associate in a general practice law office before moving on to work as an administrator in the Lewis & Clark Law School admissions office.

As part of her job Rost served as the law school representative on the board of directors of the Classroom Law Project. There she reconnected with Marilyn Cover, the adjunct professor for the Street Law Seminar course at Lewis & Clark and executive director of the Classroom Law Project. In the Street Law course, law students are placed in local high schools and teach high school students about practical law such as civil rights (free speech), torts (car crashes), contracts (buying a car) and crimes (minors in possession of controlled substance).

Rost fondly recalled her own Street Law experience, when, as a law student, she served as a teacher in a social studies class at Marshall High School. Rost recalled the students’ excitement as they learned how the law impacts their daily lives. Equally important, she was able to rekindle the sense of empowerment she felt when she herself was learning to be a lawyer. Above all, she was drawn to the work that allowed her to “empower the next generation.”

Rost points to her service on the Classroom Law Project board as the catalyst for her career transition to work at a nonprofit organization. She chose law as a career in order to help those who see themselves as powerless turn that perception around. “I wanted a job which would help leave the world a better place.”

At the Classroom Law Project, Rost strives to make the law exhilarating and accessible to children of all ages. Kindergartners can learn about the value of rules and the foundation for living responsibly in a civil society thorough picture books. Elementary, middle and high school students learn through mock trials, Project Citizen, We the People and other programs.

“I get to work with hundreds of committed volunteers. I draft and present lesson plans — most recently a series on the presidential elections. I help students learn the skills of active citizenship,” she explains. “It is gratifying to take part launching the next generation.”

Maite Uranga’s legal career has followed a circuitous path. After serving in the Peace Corps in Mauritania for two years, she attended law school at Lewis & Clark and graduated in 2006. “My plan was to practice public defense. I would be in court consistently, work with a diverse group of clients, and advocate for social justice.”

Uranga then worked at both Youth, Rights & Justice and Metropolitan Public Defender Services. “While I found the work rewarding, the process was adversarial. I became concerned about burning out and I desperately needed to recharge.” She stopped practicing law and took a year off to travel, learn and contemplate her next steps.

Uranga had dreams of practicing criminal law in Africa. While on sabbatical, she spent time observing and volunteering at the International Criminal Court in Tanzania. “The first court proceeding I watched was quite interesting. The defense attorney was held in contempt. There were three judges, multiple spoken languages and attorneys from all over the world.” It turns out that the defense attorney was a Lewis & Clark graduate who had worked in Multnomah County. Uranga offered to provide assistance on his case and was welcomed with open arms. “I walked through cases, interviewed law clerks, and learned much about the international court process. My key learning was that defendants face significant challenges and it can be very difficult to be an effective defense attorney.”

Uranga’s experience with the International Criminal Court steered her in a new direction. “I realized practicing criminal defense abroad was not the right choice for me and also that serving as a full time public defender would not allow the work-life balance I was seeking.” She sought out new experiences and the advice of trusted friends and colleagues. “Upon returning to the United States, I spent a significant amount of time volunteering at the Legal Aid bankruptcy clinic and the Senior Law Project. My volunteer experiences, both in Africa and in Portland, were invaluable. Through these experiences, I gained the confidence and legal knowledge to open my own practice.”

As a sole practitioner, Uranga maintains a general private practice and continues to volunteer with several Legal Aid pro bono clinics. For those contemplating a career change, she advises, “Have confidence to determine your strengths and weaknesses and don’t be afraid. Even if the timing is not perfect, it is okay to take on new challenges.”

Countless volunteer opportunities are available to all Oregon lawyers. The Oregon State Bar maintains an online directory of volunteer opportunities. To access the directory, visit or, click on “Bar Programs” at

Amy Miller is a former public defender who practices law part-time while also being a full-time stay-at-home mom. She is a member of the OSB Quality of Life Committee. Kevin Myles chairs the Quality of Life Committee and provides contract legal services.

This article was developed with the input and support of the OSB Quality of Life Committee. The committee is charged with educating and motivating Oregon lawyers to make professional choices that enhance their quality of life and advance the legal profession as a whole. For more information, visit