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Pro Bono Attorney of the Year advocates for representing children

Updated January 7, 2024 - 2:18 pm

Although attorneys in Nevada are encouraged to complete 20 hours of volunteer pro bono work a year, it’s sometimes hard to find volunteers willing to represent what advocates say are the most innocent of clientele — children in the foster system.

“This is just not an area that a lot of attorneys are comfortable with at first glance,” attorney Meng Zhong, who was named the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada’s pro bono attorney of the year in 2023, said in a recent interview with the Review-Journal.

Michael Wendlberger, the director of the Legal Aid Center’s pro bono project, said that attorney volunteers help the agency’s existing staff members represent clients in a variety of civil cases, from fraud and small claims to eviction disputes. But the agency typically needs the most volunteers for its children’s attorneys project, which represents children in court proceedings instigated by Child Protective Services.

“We definitely have a huge need for attorneys to help give a voice to a child in need,” Wendlberger said. “…It really enables you to provide a voice to a child in their darkest moments.”

Zhong, who works for Las Vegas’ Lewis Roca law firm, said he frequently encourages younger attorneys to start volunteer work. But because cases in Family Court can be vastly different from other areas of the law, Zhong says attorneys can be uncomfortable committing to representing children.

To convince attorneys to take on family law cases, Zhong said he offers to help mentor attorneys with their first few cases. He also uses his own motivations for volunteering in Family Court to help recruit more attorneys.

Zhong’s family immigrated to Las Vegas from China when he was 8 years old. After briefly moving away for college, Zhong became homesick and decided to make Las Vegas his permanent home. Doing pro bono work is how he continues to give back to his community, and now he frequently takes on six to 10 cases a year, he said.

“There’s an old saying — we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give,” Zhong said. “So to me, it’s important that we give back to the community that we live in, that our children are raised in, and doing pro bono work is a good way for you as a lawyer to contribute to that.”

The children represented by the Legal Aid Center are typically in cases where Child Protective Services have removed them from their homes and placed them in foster care. While the children’s parents and the state both have attorneys representing them in court, the lawyers with the children’s attorneys project are only in court to represent the child’s wishes.

“You can really change a kid’s life forever,” Wendlberger said.

The Legal Aid Center is always looking for more volunteers, even in areas that aren’t Family Law, Wendlberger said. The agency provides legal help for low-income families who otherwise would not have access to the criminal justice system, or the knowledge necessary to navigate cases in civil court.

“The hardest thing for me is when somebody needs legal help, and they don’t get it,” Wendlberger said. “And there’s so many people in the community that don’t know we exist.”

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240.

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