Why Pro Bono?
By: Daniel Riley, Esq.
October 23-29 is National Pro Bono Week, and the Bar Association has asked attorneys to share their pro bono experiences. Rather than donate yet another "war story," I've decided to explain why I do pro bono work. I donate legal services, because I know what it's like to not have a voice.
At age six, I was held back at Berthoud Elementary School, because my teacher thought I was illiterate. To be fair to her, it was a reasonable assumption. Every day, she would arrange the class in an arc and hand a book to the student at one end. Slowly, the book would pass from student to student, as each took a turn reading aloud. As the book moved closer toward me, my anxiety would reach a crescendo. When it was finally passed to my shaking hands, I would stare at the page without uttering a word and refuse to meet my teacher's stare.
In reality, I had no trouble reading. Books were strewn around every corner of my room at home on account of my librarian grandmother. Almost all my free time was spent at an abandoned grain mill across town, reading books in silence. Hidden behind tall grass in the overgrown lot surrounding the old grain mill, I would read for hours. I loved books. My favorite was a series by Eleanor Cameron, about two boys who built a spaceship and left Earth to rescue a far off planet.
The reason I couldn't read aloud in class was that I was too ashamed of my own voice. What my teacher didn't know was that I was a severe stutterer. When I was told I would have to repeat first grade, I resolved to make an effort to speak in class. Yet, no matter how often I raised my hand, I was rarely - if ever - called on. Few of my teachers bothered to hide their exasperation with this boy who croaked out shaky consonants, oozed vowels laboriously, and constructed long convoluted sentences just to avoid pronouncing a particular word. Eventually, I found that there were only two activities I could do without stuttering: I could sing, and I could speak to animals. Unfortunately, neither helped me much in school.
By the third grade, I had given up on the notion that I would ever speak normally, and I began to look with increasing envy at my classmates, who made the everyday task of communicating seem so easy. Without the ability to speak fluidly, I couldn't join in conversations. As Colin Firth said in his role as the stammering Prince Albert in The King's Speech, timing was not my strong suit. I could think of a witty remark, but I couldn't say it."
At age ten, I began attending Helen Baller Elementary, in Camas, Washington. The second week of class, an adult walked into my teacher's room and handed her a note. My teacher motioned for me, and when I approached, she said, "This nice lady is going to take you to the office." My mind raced, as I thought of what I could have done to merit a trip to the office. Betraying nothing, the lady with the note led me silently. My heart sank as we approached the principal's office, but then we past it and walked further down the hallway, to a door I'd never seen before. A tall woman was seated inside. As I entered, she stood and reached out to shake my hand, saying, "I'm Miss Elizabeth, and I'm a speech therapist."
The first thing Miss Elizabeth asked me to do was recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I stammered, "I P-p-p..." Anxiety and embarrassment flooded my brain. I expected her to tell me to "Just spit it out" any second, but instead, she politely smiled and asked me to take a deep breath and just take one word at a time. I took a breath. "I." Another breath. "P-pledge." The anxiety evaporated, replaced with a cautious optimism. "I can do this?" I thought to myself.
I had no idea what a speech therapist was, until I started seeing Miss Elizabeth every day. After the first year, I'd built enough confidence to do something that had been unimaginable to me before speech therapy: I tried out for the school play. Not only did I get a part - I was the narrator! I had more lines than anyone else. The night before the play, I didn't sleep at all. I was terrified that I would get on stage and stutter through my lines. My dad could sense that I was nervous, and he got his best tie from his closet and helped me put it on. Of course, it was too big, and the skinny end hung down below my waist. My dad fetched a pair of scissors and cut off the end. "It's yours now," he told me. "You're going to do great." It turns out, he was right. That night, for the first time in my life, I stood in front of a group of people, and I spoke.
Every stutterer wishes for one thing: A voice. I spent the first ten years of my life without one. Every time I made a wish for a voice of my own, I promised that I would use it to give a voice to others. Pro bono work allows me to fulfill that promise. Pro bono is a truncation of the Latin phrase, pro bono publico, or "for the public good." Pro bono clients cannot afford an attorney. They are often the most disadvantaged members of our society. Their voices have been silenced in some way - perhaps by an abuser, the loss of a job, or some other twist of fate. When attorneys agree to represent clients pro bono, they provide a voice to the voiceless, and that is truly the highest good that can be done for one's community.
To this day, I occasionally go through bouts of disfluency. And no matter how many years pass, I think I will always feel that familiar moment of panic every time I'm in court, walking up to the podium. But I continue, because of that promise I repeated every night for the first years of my life. Miss Elizabeth gave me my voice, and as long as I am able, I will use it to give a voice to others.