By Lee Burgess • July 15, 2013•Writers in Residence
Throughout this series, I have been sharing with you what I have learned from my nonprofit and volunteer work and how I have been able to draw on those experiences in my professional life. Today, I want to share with you an interview with a friend of mine, Hannah Seigel Proff. Hannah works at the Colorado State Public Defender’s office in Denver, Colorado. The entire time I have known Hannah she has been passionate about her volunteer work. Today she shares with us her story of why she volunteers, what she has learned from it, and how you can find the right volunteer opportunity for you too. Without further ado . . .
Could you tell us a bit about your day job?
I am a criminal defense attorney for the Colorado State Public Defender in Denver, Colorado. I have been with the Public Defender’s office for five years, and I have worked in the misdemeanor, juvenile and felony units. My true passion is juvenile representation, and I am currently in the juvenile unit. I specialize in representing children charged with serious criminal offenses. I also teach advocacy skills within the Colorado State Public Defender system and the greater Denver legal community.
Could you tell us a little bit about the nonprofit or pro bono work you do currently and have done in the past?
I do a lot of nonprofit and pro bono work. I am somewhat of a “volunteer addict.”
I am the co-founder of LYRIC—Learn Your Rights in Colorado. I founded LYRIC out of frustration with the way police were treating children during searches, interrogations and arrests. Large numbers of juveniles were waiving their constitutional rights during police contact. As a public defender, I was teaching young people about their rights after they became involved in the criminal justice system. I created LYRIC as a way to empower children with knowledge of their constitutional rights prior to any involvement with the criminal justice system. LYRIC aims to bring constitutional rights to life for juveniles in schools, juvenile justice facilities and community settings.
I also volunteer with Colorado Youth at Risk (CYAR). CYAR is a volunteer program that empowers teenage students to make life choices that will positively impact their future through community-based mentoring and training. I work with the larger community as well as with an individual mentee.
I am very committed to legal volunteer work. I am on the Public Interest Committee of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association. As a committee, we plan and staff legal volunteer nights around the city. We conduct at least one legal volunteer night per month.
What drives you to volunteer your time for these organizations?
Volunteer work is one of the most rewarding parts of my life. As a public defender, I work for children in crisis. I deal with a high level of stress and acrimony in the courtroom on a daily basis. What I love about volunteer work is that I am able to reach the community I am committed to helping, children, without having to deal with the stress of a pending criminal case. Volunteering for LYRIC, I can spend two hours talking to a group of kids about police brutality. With my mentee, we can take a walk in the park and talk about educational goals. It is these moments that make volunteer work worthwhile.
Do you find it difficult to make time for nonprofit work?
Yes, but my life is better when I am giving back. So just like exercise, I make volunteer work a priority in my life.
Do you think you have gained any skills or experiences in your nonprofit work that you can apply to your legal career as a public defender?
Absolutely! Volunteering has given me space to grow not only as a person but as a lawyer. I have learned so much about immigration, landlord tenant law and divorce law from working at night-time walk-in legal clinics. I have also been able to connect with lawyers in different areas of practice.
Have you been able to take on any leadership positions as part of your nonprofit work? If so, what lessons have you learned from that experience?
As the founder of LYRIC, I have learned a great deal about organizing a volunteer-based program. I have learned that it is hard to find good volunteers, and the good ones deserve recognition. I have also learned how important a vibrant network can be. I love having a large volunteer community to turn to with questions and concerns.
Does your nonprofit work make you a better lawyer?
Being around healthy and happy children as a volunteer helps me have compassion and perspective when dealing with children stuck in the juvenile justice system. Through nonprofit work, I have gained perspective, and that perspective motivates me to fight even that much harder to keep kids out of custody and out of the system.
Has your nonprofit work given you an opportunity to build your professional, or personal, network?
I went to law school in California, so when I moved to Colorado to practice I had to build my legal community. I have a strong network within the criminal defense bar through work; however, my volunteer work has strengthened by community connections as well as my legal network.
Do you have any advice for law students and young lawyers about how to find volunteer work that could be good for them and, possibly, good for their career?
Make time for volunteer work that you are passionate about. As a committed volunteer, you will form connections that may be able to help you get a job in the future. I have met so many young lawyers through my volunteer work. If I see someone is bright and engaged, I will connect him or her with my network and help in any way that I can.
Thank you, Hannah, for sharing your experiences with us. If you have questions for Hannah, please leave them in the comments.