From the Multnomah Lawyer: Lillian Watson: YLS Pro Bono Spotlight

This month’s spotlight is on Lillian Watson, owner of Gresham Family and Bankruptcy Law. Lillian’s first career was in mortgage lending. She then attended Lewis & Clark Law School, graduating in 2001 and going on to establish the firm she now owns.

Over the life of her career, Lillian has acted as a volunteer pro bono attorney for several different organizations. She volunteered at St. Andrew Legal Clinic; the Unlawful Practice of Law Committee with the OSB; the domestic Violence Project at Legal Aid Services of Oregon; and the Senior Law Project at Oregon Law Center. Now, her pro bono focus is as an attorney for children in domestic relations cases.

Oregon law provides for the appointment of an attorney to represent a child’s interests in a domestic relations case by motion of a party to the case or by motion of the court, and by the child asking for an attorney for themself. If one of the parties in a case asks for an attorney for a child, the court has the discretion to appoint one; however, if the child asks, the court must appoint one. Reasonable fees for the attorney’s work are available, but the cost for the attorney cannot be paid by funds earmarked for public defense services. Because money for attorney’s fees is often an issue for parties in domestic relations cases, the majority of attorneys that are appointed for children work pro bono.

The role of the attorney representing a child is to give a voice to that child in the proceedings because the parents may disagree on what is best for the child. Attorneys for children represent only the child’s interests and are not on either parent’s side. They also must advocate for a child’s wishes when that child is old enough to give input into the case.

Lillian had a few difficult cases representing children but is quick to point out that she does it to give back to the community; not for recognition or accolades. She believes that she has been blessed in her life and legal career, and feels that it is only right that she returns some of those blessings to her community: “I’ve been lucky,” she says simply. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Lillian also emphasizes that pro bono work is not an all-or-nothing proposition. She says that there have been some years during her 19-year career where doing a lot of pro bono work was not possible, and that one who does pro bono work shouldn’t feel pressure to take a lot of difficult cases, or devote a huge portion of their practice to it. She believes that if each attorney who practices family law did some pro bono work, it would add up to a lot: “Maybe some years you only take one or two cases. Sometimes life gets in the way. But think about it: if everyone just took one or two cases, what a difference that would make. You don’t have to be a rockstar.”

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