Pro Bono Profile: Q&A with Andrew P. Cornell

Issue November 2014

Massachusetts Bar Association member Andrew P. Cornell has been practicing law in Massachusetts for 20 years, concentrating on all aspects of family law. He is a volunteer attorney for Community Legal Services and Counseling Center (CLSCC) in Cambridge, where he has represented several victims of domestic violence on a pro bono basis. He was awarded the MBA's Access to Justice Pro Bono Publico Award in 2003 and serves as a member of the MBA's Access to Justice Section Council. The MBA's Mike Vigneux recently spoke with Cornell about his pro bono experiences.

Q: Why is it important to do pro bono work as an attorney?

A: It's a recognition that lawyers as a licensed group of individuals have been part of creating a system that has made getting to court incredibly expensive. By no means are lawyers the only people responsible for it. Middle-class people, poor people, even a lot of upper-middle class people often can't afford the rates lawyers charge. So, along with the privilege of being able to charge that much money for basically things that are just in my brain, comes the responsibility of leveling the playing field to make it so that people who can't afford attorneys can still be represented.

Q: What's the most rewarding aspect of pro bono work?

A: You have to care enough to do a really good job, but not enough that you take the problems home with you. I know that there are women who've been able to get a financial settlement that they normally wouldn't have been able to get without an attorney's help. Some have received protection with restraining orders and parenting plans that keep their children safe that wouldn't have had them without an attorney's help. I know that people I've represented have felt empowered, and I've been able to be a part of their whole process of getting out of an abusive situation so that they can stand on their own feet. I've represented a lot of women whose husbands are very violent. I represented a woman whose husband tried to kill her by throwing a VCR into the hot tub while she was sitting in it. It's impactful work. You really do feel like your presence there is helping somebody achieve a goal that they probably wouldn't be able to without a lawyer.

Q: What do you find most challenging about pro bono cases?

A: My theory has always been that if you're going to work for free you might as well do interesting work. So I've always asked for interesting cases. The problem with interesting cases is that they tend to be the most complex cases. But if you're going to work for free, it might as well be an experience. The domestic violence cases are the hardest, and I think because they're the hardest they can be the most fulfilling. One reason they're hard is that you're dealing with scary people [the abusers].

Q: What makes working with domestic violence cases particularly difficult?

A: One of the problems you have is that most victims don't get to court until after the black eye is gone, the blood is dried off and they've been cleaned up. One of the things that happens when you do domestic violence work and you get very intimately connected with your clients is you really do learn about the violence from their perspective - what the fear was really like of not knowing when somebody was going to go off on you. Not knowing when you're going to get your nose broken or when someone is going to slam your head against a wall. You get a sense of what it's like to be in a situation where the adrenaline is going through you the whole time. Court is this very ritualized state where the person gets up there and they say, almost in a monotone, because you're not supposed to be too theatrical, "He did this to me. He did this. … He did this." I think there's often a disconnect with a lot of judges, court officials and other lawyers about domestic violence because they haven't lived it every day, even through their client.