We’ve seen it repeatedly throughout our history: When people’s rights are threatened, it’s the lawyers who step up to the plate. Some are true Freedom Fighters, and they deserve special recognition. That’s why each month, we will feature lawyers who are really making a difference.
Today, we are proud to feature Francesca A. Rehal.
Francesca A. Rehal is a solo practitioner in Savannah, Georgia, who was recognized by the Savannah Bar Association’s Pro Bono Committee for her efforts to work with low-income people seeking critical legal services. She received the Pro Bono Champion Award for handling the greatest number of cases during the past year. Francesca is also on the Board of Directors at Family Promise of Greater Savannah, which was developed to alleviate homelessness among families with children by providing emergency shelter, meals, and comprehensive support. She also assists in the training of volunteer attorneys in the area of domestic violence.
Here’s the interview:
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
As a young girl, I watched families struggle in my community so I decided that I wanted to be in a profession where I could really make a difference in people’s lives by helping guide them through their trying times. My parents always supported me in so many ways: They helped me obtain a post-high school education and taught me to be the best that I could be.
What was your most memorable case?
I had a client who was arrested on three separate occasions for drug possession charges before the age of 21. The client was facing serious time in prison but with encouragement, decided to enter the drug court program. I ran into this client years later, and because of the program, that person had become a responsible adult with a great job, contributing positively to the community. The client hugged me in thanks for helping.
What inspired you to take your first pro-bono case?
As a young girl, my family struggled financially and I saw that there were agencies, churches, and individuals who were willing to go the extra mile to help my family in many different ways. In an effort to pay it forward, I wanted to be able to help those who truly needed assistance but were unable to secure enough funds to hire an attorney. It started when I was employed by another attorney who wanted me to take on court-appointed criminal cases where the defendants did not have the ability to pay for the attorney. The fees received were minimal, but I continued accepting many such cases long after I opened my own firm. Then, later on, when it came to my attention that Georgia Legal Services needed attorneys to assist victims of violence in protective order cases without pay, I signed on right away since it hit close to home. I believe I can relate to these victims whom I refer to as “victors” for coming forward and standing up for themselves.
In considering the support and protection of victims of domestic violence, where do we stand today? What are our next legal hurdles?
I have seen our community come a long way since I started to take on these cases. There are so many agencies now that did not exist (or were relatively unknown) when I started handling them years ago. Victims of domestic violence have many options today that they did not have even ten years ago. In terms of hurdles or next steps, there needs to be more public education about what happens to victims of violence. We also need to teach that they are not “stupid” or “ignorant” people, but often have a different psychological make-up from long-term verbal abuse that usually goes along with the violence, thus breaking down their self-worth.
Also, unfortunately, from what I have seen here in Savannah, it appears that there should be more legal assistance to local domestic violence services in order to weed out the cases in which a person claiming violence is not an actual victim but instead is using the system to seek financial or other gain.
What is the biggest challenge you face today?
Handling every aspect of a small firm without an assistant. This includes opening new cases, conducting research, preparing cases for court, filing pleadings, responding to every phone call and email, drafting all documents, and managing the administrative needs of the office such as learning how to navigate the ever-changing technology landscape. Juggling all of this with my many court appearances can be quite challenging!
You’ve had so many successes. Which one (or ones) stands out the most for you?
When I look back at the number of individuals and families that I have assisted with protective orders and landlord/tenant situations, who truly needed someone to just listen, it warms my heart.
If you could give one piece of advice to other lawyers across the country, what would you say?
Slow down and take the time to listen to what your clients are saying. We have such an important job in our society and compassion, not money, should be our driving force.
If an attorney wants to get involved in social justice, how can he or she get started?
Contact your local Legal Services Program. Volunteer an hour or so a week to start out. You can take court-appointed cases, especially in the Juvenile Court system. Talk to your peers about handling pro bono cases. A good network to get started with is LinkedIn. Or, just contact me!
Kristin Johnson is an executive and corporate communications professional, and founder of KSJ Communications, a communications and public relations firm. She consults with a diverse roster of clients spanning the technology, professional services, financial services, public sector, consumer, and healthcare industries. In addition to Rocket Matter, Johnson writes for various other publications as well.