Alumna Feature: Joan Shreffler Dinsmore '06

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Joan Dinsmore, 2006
Name and year of graduation from UNC Law: Joan Shreffler Dinsmore, 2006

Place of employment: McGuireWoods LLP, Raleigh

Area of practice: Product & Consumer Litigation

Favorite class/professor in law school: Federal Jurisdiction with Professor Elizabeth Gibson

Pro Bono experience in law school: Unfortunately, not much. I worked all three years of law school, so I did not have much time for anything except my job and studying.

What inspired or prompted you to start doing Pro Bono work? My first pro bono case fell into my lap by accident in 2007. I heard about the sister of a secretary at my former firm who was being treated horribly by the owner of the San Diego restaurant where she worked: she was being made to work for tips only (in violation of the law), he changed her name in the system so the checks she printed for customers included things like “Thanks from your lazy server,” and was forced to do personal errands for the owner. I waitressed for years in high school, college, and law school, and I knew how hard the job can be even in the best of circumstances. In her situation, it was made worse by her total lack of bargaining power. She was in her 40s with little education, and had a daughter to raise. In San Diego, jobs at the “better” restaurants went to young college students, so this woman was stuck. I felt like I had to take on the case, even knowing nothing about labor law in California. After several years of hard-fought litigation, I obtained a settlement that allowed the client to go to school. She got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and now works as a counselor in Austin, Texas. I still keep up with her.

What does your current Pro Bono practice look like? I am always on the lookout for new and interesting projects, and I have used my pro bono practice to rotate through various areas of the law. At the moment, I am partnering with the Special Victims Unit at the Wake County District Attorney’s Office. A large portion of this unit’s work involves prosecution of physical and sexual abuse cases where the victims are minors. These cases are very sensitive, and require a significant amount of investigation and care but unfortunately, the DA’s office has limited personnel and resources, and the attorneys there can easily be overwhelmed by motions and requests, particularly from private defense attorneys hired by well heeled defendants. I help where I can by drafting and arguing discovery motions, working with third party witnesses, and helping with trial preparation and case strategy.

What challenges do you face in completing Pro Bono work? What strategies do you employ to overcome those obstacles? The practice of law has become so specialized now. It is rare to come across a true general practitioner. Therefore, a struggle for me and I believe for other lawyers wanting to do more pro bono work is a feeling that we are not qualified to assist clients in other specialties, such as in criminal, immigration, or administrative proceedings. In that regard, I have had the feeling in some of my matters that I getting home-towned by opposing counsel who tries to capitalize on my inexperience in that area. There are a few methods for dealing with this. First, I remind myself that I know way more than I give myself credit for. Even if I do not know the answer to a substantive legal question, I know where to look. Second, I make sure that even if I am not the most knowledgeable lawyer working on the case, I will be the hardest working. Tenacity and forcing the other side to work goes a long way. Third, I make use of my connections, including my former UNC Law classmates. Seven or eight years ago, when working for a firm in San Francisco, I took on an asylum case and quickly found myself in way over my head due to some special procedural complexities in the case. I contacted fellow 2006 graduate Lisa Weissman-Ward, who was working at one of the most highly regarded immigration firms in California. Lisa’s firm was willing to assist me on the case for a fraction of their usual fee (paid for out of my firm’s pro bono budget), and they were instrumental in helping me navigate the immigration system.

Which Pro Bono experience gave you the most personal or professional pride? Beginning in 2010, I took on two cases through the California Habeas Project. In short, a number of years ago, the California Evidence Code prohibited a defendant in a criminal matter to introduce evidence that he or she was a victim of domestic violence unless relevant to a claim of self-defense or similar privilege. For example, if a woman who had been subject to years of horrific abuse shot her abusive husband in his sleep, she would not be able to introduce evidence of the abuse as a way to mitigate the charges or the penalty. The California legislature changed the Evidence Code, but there were still survivors of domestic violence who had been imprisoned before the amendment. Therefore, the legislature enacted another law allowing those survivors convicted before the amendment to the Evidence Code to challenge their imprisonment through a habeas petition, arguing that had they been allowed to present such evidence, their conviction or sentence would have been different. I sought such relief on behalf of two women, and both are out of prison now. In 2014, at the final hearing in the second woman’s case, the judge—who reduced the client’s sentence from life to time served—likened the ruling to my “Atticus Finch moment.” I could not think of a better compliment from a judge who was about to grant freedom to my client.

What is one new thing you learned from Pro Bono work that you would not have known otherwise? When a prisoner is released from the California Department of Corrections, they are provided a bus ticket and $200.00 cash.

What motivates you to continue doing Pro Bono work? I know the answer to this question is supposed to be “I love helping people.” While assisting pro bono clients is a strong incentive to do great work, a stronger motivation is the intellectual challenge. At this point in my career, there are parts of my job—like taking the deposition of a plaintiff in a consumer class action or drafting a motion for summary judgment—that are important and necessary, but often do not require mental aerobics. So when I am faced with, for example, having to go through reams of immigration laws and regulations to find a procedural avenue for an asylum applicant to challenge a finding of fact, it is a nice break.

How do you find your Pro Bono projects? It is usually word of mouth through my colleagues at work or others in my network. I have been lucky to not have to seek out interesting projects; they seem to find their way to me.

Do you prefer to handle Pro Bono projects on your own or do you like to work with a non-profit or other partner organization? Why? In my opinion, more smart people with great ideas and input is always a good thing. I love establishing partnerships with other lawyers outside my organization, who usually have more experience in the substantive area of law than I do. Not only do I learn a great amount from these partners, but I also establish connections that I can call in the future. I underestimated how much of the practice of law is about knowing the limits of your abilities and, even more importantly, knowing who to call when you reach your limits.

What is the single best reason you can give a law student to continue Pro Bono service in practice after graduation from law school? When I graduated, I took a job at a 2,000-lawyer firm. For students taking similar paths, it is the best (and probably only) way to get substantive experience early in their careers. For example, I took my first deposition in a pro bono case as a second year associate. I did not first-chair a deposition in a case for a paying firm client until four years later.

Posted by James G. Wudel on Sun. August 28, 2016 10:28 AM
Categories: Alumni Features
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