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Asylum-seeking clients find free legal help with Thomson Reuters attorneys

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Fifteen lawyers are using their paid volunteer time to help people avoid religious, social and political persecution.

To be granted asylum in the U.S., people looking for respite from persecution must navigate a convoluted legal process that requires resources they usually don’t have.

What some do have is volunteer attorneys who take on asylum cases for free, such as Emily Slagle and Stephanie Yang.

Slagle, a product developer based in Eagan, and Yang, a Seattle-based client manager, are working with Thomson Reuters Pro Bono Connection and Advocates for Human Rights to help a woman from Ethiopia obtain asylum.

They’re among the 15 or so Thomson Reuters attorneys who are using their paid volunteer time to work on asylum matters.

“It can literally be life or death for them”

Slagle and Yang’s client belongs to a marginalized ethnic group. The two began working on her case in June and have met face-to-face three times since then. They’ve also spent time using free access to Westlaw to research the client’s case.

“It’s definitely been rewarding,” said Slagle, who is working on her first asylum case. “You’re dealing with someone who has fled persecution. It literally can be life and death for them.”

Yang said she had long been interested in asylum work, but hesitated to become involved until she attended a CLE Advocates for Human Rights presented at Thomson Reuters Eagan campus and learned that Pro Bono Connection provided malpractice insurance.

“I wanted to use my law degree to help people, and this seemed like a great way to do that,” she said. “There is a real need that can be met, and there are tons of resources and support here.”

Seeking asylum

Asylum seekers are people who arrive in the U.S. fleeing persecution based on their political opinions, nationality, race, religion or membership in a targeted social group.  Unlike refugees, who often secure entry into the U.S. with the assistance of a relief agency and so have something of a support network when they arrive, asylum seekers typically lack any kind of formal assistance. That means they have to start the process of seeking asylum with little money, few sources of advice and perhaps limited English ability.

Lesley Guyton is an immigration attorney with Guyton Thuente P.A. in St. Paul, Minnesota, and serves as an advisory counselor to Yang and Guyton. She noted asylum is an area of law where assistance from an attorney can greatly increase the odds for success.

“This is not something most people fleeing persecution can do on their own,” she said. “They need someone who knows what is required to prove that they have ‘a well-founded fear of persecution’ and who can assist in showing that their fear is based on actions of the government of their country or by persons or groups the government is unable to control.”

Because most asylum seekers don’t have money, an immigration attorney usually can’t charge his or her normal rates, Guyton said, and the time-consuming nature of the asylum process limits how many free asylum cases any one lawyer can handle independently.

“You’re talking about people who get here and they don’t have much. They may know one friend who is putting them upon their couch for awhile, and that’s all they have. Some of them may not even know their rights – they may not know where to go, who to talk to, they may have no money,” she said. “People are often just hanging on.”

About Pro Bono Connection

To make taking asylum cases easier, Pro Bono Connection and Advocates for Human Rights worked together to create roles for attorneys: “Direct service” attorneys like Slagle and Yang work with clients directly; “consulting attorneys” like Guyton provide guidance and oversight, but not day-to-day input. At Thomson Reuters, Pro Bono Connection participants have also used their volunteer time to offer research or translation services for asylum matters.

Pro Bono Connection gives licensed attorneys 20 hours of paid volunteer time for legal tasks. That comes on top of the 16 hours of paid volunteer time given to each Thomson Reuters employee.

“We have a concentration of real legal talent within Thomson Reuters, and we want to make that talent available to the greater community,” said Ed Friedland, general counsel for Thomson Reuters’ Legal business unit and Pro Bono Connection’s executive sponsor.

While participants are free to use their time for any project that meets the program’s guidelines, Pro Bono Connection has formed affiliations with several organizations, such as Wills for Heroes, Volunteer Lawyers Network, and Children’s Law Center, to make finding meaningful work smoother and easier.

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