Jessica Howton Stool has dedicated her entire legal career to public interest law. It’s a career trajectory she began pursuing when she was a law student at Notre Dame. While there, she interned for Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), representing unaccompanied migrant children. She then spent more than a decade practicing law at the Tahirih Justice Center, where she represented immigrant survivors fleeing gender-based violence.
Six weeks ago, Howton Stool started the next chapter of her pro bono-oriented legal career as the new executive director of Houston Volunteer Lawyers, the pro bono services arm of the Houston Bar Association.
She succeeds HVL executive director (and fellow Tahirih alum) Anne Chandler, who guided HVL through most of the pandemic before departing this spring to launch a statewide immigration advocacy center. Howton Stool takes the reins of HVL at a time when the need is great for private practice attorneys to step up and volunteer to do pro bono work.
“HVL is only able to serve the number of individuals we do through our partnership with pro bono attorneys throughout the greater Houston area,” Howton Stool said. “Pro bono engagement is vital to our success and ability to respond to community need.”
The Texas Lawbook caught up with Howton Stool during her first several weeks on the new job. In the following Q&A, Howton Stool discusses her passion for pro bono law, what attracted her to HVL, which area of law HVL needs the most lawyer volunteers for currently and what law firms can do to improve their pro bono capabilities.
The Texas Lawbook: You have been on the job for nearly six weeks. How have the first several weeks been, what have you learned so far and what’s been keeping you busy?
Jessica Howton Stool: It has been great so far! At times, it has been like drinking from a fire hose, but I have learned a tremendous amount and have loved getting to know the HVL team better. I am trying to learn a lot of different things quickly — details about our grants, our budget, what community trends have we been seeing, what are the biggest needs and stress points… and also the little things like how to find a hole punch or post-it note. I knew coming in, but it has been amazing to see in my first few weeks how creative staff are at finding ways to best serve the greater Houston community and how dedicated some of our supporters are in championing pro bono service. I look forward to working with the HVL community to continue finding ways to better meet the needs of our neighbors.
Lawbook: How did the move to HVL come about, and what attracted you to the organization? What will your role as executive director entail?
Howton Stool: I have always known about Houston Volunteer Lawyers and the vital support it provides the greater Houston community by helping those navigating various civil law needs get legal representation, or, at minimum, empowerment through advice and counsel. Even though I have primarily worked on immigration matters, a person’s legal status does not mean they are immune from family law needs, housing, estate planning, etc. In fact, it often just increases their vulnerability when dealing with those issues. During my time at Tahirih, I also had the privilege of working with Anne Chandler, HVL’s former executive director. She has done an incredible job championing HVL’s mission, and I am glad to have the opportunity to build on her foundation and carry on her great work. I am excited to join HVL and link the incredible generosity of the Houston legal community with our neighbors who need advocacy to access justice in their civil cases.
Lawbook: Do you remember your first pro bono case in your career?
Howton Stool: I knew going to law school that I would be focusing my career in public interest law. I vividly remember meeting my first client on my first day of work as a brand new licensed attorney. She was at an immigration detention center after being wrongfully accused of a misdemeanor. She was a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, and what struck me immediately was how everything felt stacked against her being able to access the protections she was entitled to under U.S. law. From day one, I knew that for some of our community members, it would be impossible to access justice without an attorney advocating for them. And for some, the consequences were life threatening.
Lawbook: What attracted you to focusing your career on pro bono work?
Howton Stool: I was attracted to focusing my career on pro bono work because the ability to afford counsel should not be the deciding factor to whether you can access justice in our country. I have also learned how impactful it can be for someone simply to not have to do it alone. It is stressful and difficult enough to have to deal with a divorce or custody issue, worry about losing your house because of a probate problem, get a letter in the mail about some tax question, or decide how you can protect a loved one who is incapable of making those decisions for themselves. Having an attorney to at least answer questions, provide guidance, and help you to navigate those hard decisions can be life changing on its own.
Lawbook: Tell me more about your time with Tahirih Justice Center, your role there and what you’re proud of accomplishing while there.
Howton Stool: I learned so much from my 11 years at the Tahirih Justice Center and am grateful to the amazing community of advocates that I had the privilege of working with every day. I started as a legal fellow and staff attorney, and eventually became the managing attorney of the Houston office. My role was to provide direct legal representation to immigrant survivors of gender-based violence such as sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation. I also provided mentorship to pro bono attorneys, conducted outreach and trainings with community partners, and managed our legal department and pro bono program. During my time, my youngest client was two years old, and my oldest was in her seventies. I learned how important it is for attorneys to understand trauma and provide trauma-informed advocacy. I saw how interconnected the issues facing survivors were, and how the legacy of white supremacy played out in our legal systems. I am proud of a lot of things that my team and I were able to accomplish, but mostly I am humbled by the incredible clients I was able to work with and the resiliency, generosity, and strength they showed on a daily basis.
Lawbook: What are the biggest challenges HVL faces in the next few years and how do you plan to address those challenges?
Howton Stool: HVL is only able to serve the number of individuals we do through our partnership with pro bono attorneys throughout the greater Houston area. Pro bono engagement is vital to our success and ability to respond to community need. One of the challenges we face is ensuring we have a consistent pool of pro bono [lawyers] ready to take cases with us throughout the year, particularly cases that may take a bit more time. Pro bono attorneys might be interested in working on a specific legal matter, so we have to make sure we have broad enough legal support to cover all the different types of cases we take on. Another priority is making sure HVL is ready to pivot and respond to the next disaster or emergency that comes our way. HVL has done a fantastic job being there to help the greater Houston community through hurricanes, Winter Storm Uri, and Covid. The unfortunate reality, though, isn’t if something else will happen, but when. We want to make sure we have learned from all our work so far and are as prepared as possible to respond efficiently and effectively when the next crisis occurs.
Lawbook: What are two or three misperceptions that lawyers have about pro bono?
Howton Stool: I think some attorneys are hesitant to take pro bono cases that take them outside their comfort zone. I would encourage attorneys to reach out to whatever organization they are interested in partnering with to talk through their hesitations and concerns. Oftentimes nonprofits, like HVL, offer mentorship, templates, and resources to support the attorney through the life of the case. The organization can help them find what case is best for the availability and interests. I think attorneys also forget how important and valuable an experience pro bono can be. The Texas Rules of Professional Conduct talks about our ethical obligation to do pro bono. However, there are many reasons to do pro bono. It allows the attorney an opportunity to learn or practice skills that they normally do not get to use. It is a way to get insight and experience in a new area of law and see things from a different perspective. It helps to make us better advocates and compassionate community members. There are many benefits for an attorney to do a pro bono case and prioritize finding ways to incorporate pro bono work into their normal workload and office culture.
Lawbook: What is a specific initiative in which you need lawyer support right now?
Howton Stool: One of our biggest continuing needs is for support in family law cases. Sometimes these cases can get a bit complicated, and so they are even harder to find pro bono attorneys willing to take them on. It can be a challenging subject matter to handle, but it is a real need in the Houston community.
Lawbook: What are one or two things that law firms could do to improve their pro bono capabilities?
Howton Stool: Something that law firms can do to improve their pro bono capabilities would be to investigate partnering with attorneys outside their firm on various cases. It is a great way to get to know the in-house counsel of one of their clients or work with friends from law school at a different firm. It helps to share the workload while also building relationships. Additionally, firms can take several of the same type of case at once, intentionally creating the opportunity for their attorneys to bounce ideas off each other and learn together while working on separate projects. Lastly, it is important that pro bono is modeled from firm leadership. Associates are looking to their partners to learn what is important and how to prioritize their workloads. Having a partner work with several associates on a pro bono case is a great way to encourage a culture of service while creating professional development opportunities for newer attorneys.