A Reminder of Why You Became a Lawyer: An immigrant who grew up with a need to help others finds her calling in pro bono work

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 14:10

Adriana Dulic, who is a lawyer at Epoch Payment Solutions based in Santa Monica, California, grew up in a country that no longer exists. That helps explain why she is so dedicated to helping others in need. She was born and raised in Yugoslavia. At age 18 she got a ticket out of her war-ravaged country: a full athletic scholarship to play tennis at the University of Nebraska. She came to the U.S. on a student visa, then got an H-1B visa, a green card and finally achieved citizenship a few years ago. Dulic, who has long felt lucky for the help she received, has always been determined to return the favor. For her, pro bono was an obvious way to do that. The interview has been edited for style and length.

When did you first harbor the hope that you would be able to leave Yugoslavia, and were you always intent upon getting to the U.S.?

Adriana Dulic: To be honest with you, if anybody asked me that question 20, 25 years ago, I never would have imagined I would end up where I am today. My father was very intent on having my sister and me do well in tennis. But the plan was not initially to go to the U.S. It just happened to be a lucky circumstance. We had a friend who had received a scholarship here in the States decades ago, and she told us about it. We decided to apply and provide our materials to coaches here. Literally, it was just a lucky break that one of the coaches took a chance on me and my sister, who, a couple of years before me, ended up playing tennis on a full athletic scholarship at the University of Maryland.

Was the motivation more to seek an opportunity to play tennis or to flee the war?

Dulic: A little bit of both. I think for most people in sports, they either choose to go to college or to play professionally. So once a decision is made to go to college, I don’t think anyone realistically hopes to become a professional athlete at that point anymore. We pretty much chose to just escape the war.

Even if you were not living in an area that was affected by the fighting itself, the economy was completely destroyed. We had sanctions placed against us as well at one point. Unemployment was extremely high. So we were just seeking a better life, essentially. I think my parents realized that it was going to take decades to rehabilitate and rebuild our country. So even though it’s difficult to leave what you know and not see your parents or any family members for who knows how long, we all knew that leaving our homeland was the best thing to do.

What made you decide you wanted to become a lawyer?

Dulic: I think I knew from the age of 15 that I wanted to be a lawyer. It was around that time that the civil war began, and we had a lot of refugees coming over, a lot of people that needed help. And so it was between journalism and law. I felt like those two fields were a way that I could make a difference in someone’s life, and I felt better suited to pursue law.

Why did you decide you wanted to work in-house for a company?

Dulic: That decision came a lot later. I did not initially plan to go in-house. But I think many of us enter the profession with no clear idea as to what we’re going to be facing and what a day-to-day job may look like, until we actually enter the profession. Once I became a lawyer and started working for a private law firm, I realized that I was probably better suited to be in-house. I was also looking for something that was a better fit for my background and for who I am. I was at a law firm where I was the only woman lawyer, literally, and where most of the people were in their 60s, with children my age.  I did not feel like I had a lot in common with them.

You already hinted at this, but when did you decide to get involved in pro bono work?

Dulic: It came about very early, given the circumstances I grew up in. I think that most of us believe that if we just work hard and do the right thing, things will work out, even though we know that may not be the case, because clearly you can find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I think for most people that’s a very remote and theoretical possibility. For me it’s a very tangible feeling, because where I came from,100 miles literally made a difference between living in hell or living in peace. I’m very, very grateful that I ended up living in this country and that I get to live the life I live today.

So I try to do my part to make life a little easier for those that are less fortunate. As soon as I could, I got involved in pro bono work and community service. I was still in college when I got an opportunity to volunteer through the Nebraska Athletics Department.  We went to local schools and talked to the kids to basically motivate them to work hard, stay in school and do well. So I got involved right away at that point, doing community service. And then at Pepperdine University School of Law, I volunteered at the Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row by participating in a pro bono clinic.

What are some of the services you’ve provided as a lawyer?

Dulic: I am heavily involved with the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), which is a worldwide association of in-house counsel. I belong to the Southern California Chapter, and I have been chairing its pro bono committee for three years now. Over the years, we’ve partnered with a lot of nonprofits and organized many pro bono clinics.  We’ve worked with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) where we get to interview unaccompanied minors and gather information that KIND can then use to evaluate what kind of immigration relief they may be able to qualify for. We’ve also done a veterans clinic where we addressed, basically, discharge issues for veterans. This makes a huge difference for them in the types of employment opportunities they may able to get and types of housing opportunities or other benefits they may be eligible for. We’ve worked with Justice Bus, which is an organization that takes attorneys to remote areas and provides those residents with whatever legal help they need. In this case we provided assistance with statutory wills and advanced health directives. We’ve done small-business clinics where we partnered with the Public Counsel and Public Law Center, which are two nonprofit organizations here in the Los Angeles area, and provided assistance with various governance issues. It could be intellectual property issues, it could be employment issues – whatever they may need as small-business owners. We’ve also done citizenship clinics with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, providing assistance to applicants with their naturalization applications and fee waivers.

I’ve also done a lot of volunteering on my own, outside of ACC, where I’ve taken cases through Public Counsel on my own. The assistance I provide is usually to nonprofits, getting incorporated, first of all, and then seeking tax exemptions on a federal as well as California level.

How do these partnerships work? How does ACC facilitate them, and how does it actually work on the ground to partner with these organizations?

Dulic: I think it works great and is one of the best ways to get involved in pro bono. The way it all really started is that I was volunteering on my own a lot, so I already had contacts at various nonprofits such as the Public Law Center, Public Counsel, Advancing Justice, etc. There are really a lot of them in Los Angeles area. So I reached out and talked to them about what we had in mind, and about many constraints that in-house counsel face in terms of the resources that we have available to us. If you’re at a law firm, for instance, you might have a legal secretary who is helping you out. You might have a paralegal. But in-house, often that’s just not the case.

Most of us are not litigation attorneys and don’t necessarily have experience in keeping track of a case that may drag on for 18 months or longer. And so in talking to them about these kinds of issues, we came up with a model that works for everybody, which is to hold either whole-day or half-day clinics where we either partner with a law firm, if it’s needed, or just with a nonprofit. But the clinic is hosted either by the nonprofit that we partner with or a law firm. Our volunteers get a couple of hours of training on a particular topic that they will be addressing. So if it’s a veteran’s clinic, we’ll get training on discharge issues. If it’s a nonprofit clinic, we’ll get a primer on employment issues or corporate governance issues. Then right after the training, we get to actually meet the clients and provide assistance for another few hours.

Roughly how many in-house lawyers are involved in ACC Southern California’s pro bono program? And how has the program changed over the years, and during your three years as chair?

Dulic: The Southern California Chapter itself has about 1,700 in-house lawyers as members. Usually between 20 to 30 people show up for each clinic, and I can tell you, it’s a lot of work. I’ve been a member of the pro bono committee for about a decade now, and over the years it has changed tremendously. I think a decade ago we were lucky if we had one or two pro bono events a year. And now for the third year in a row we’ve had eight events a year. Usually we try to have one community service event and one pro bono event each quarter. So it’s grown tremendously. Years ago we were lucky if we got five people to sign up. Now we have clinics that get sold out. We actually have to close registration for them early. The KIND clinic gets sold out every single time we have it, and we offer it, actually, twice a year. I couldn’t be happier about what it’s turned into.

What do you attribute that success to?

Dulic: It takes personal outreach, to be honest. I’ve made a lot of contacts. I have a lot of personal and professional friends through ACC, and I make an effort to reach out to them. I don’t just rely on them seeing an ad or a promotion through our weekly email blast. ACC Southern California covers a very large geographical area, all the way from Ventura County in the north to Orange County in the south and San Bernardino and Riverside Counties in the east. Obviously no one’s going to drive two hours to get to our clinic, so I try to reach out to people I know in that area to make sure they are aware of an opportunity.

Another thing that helps is that we try to provide as much variety as possible. Some people are passionate about veterans and others are passionate about animals or about issues that affect elderly people. If you want to get them all to participate, you have to offer a wide variety of events.

Given your background and the recent events involving the new administration in Washington, is immigration an area of particular interest for you?

Dulic: Definitely. Since I’m an immigrant, it’s an area that’s near and dear to my heart. Not to get too political, but it has been truly shocking to watch these developments. Frankly, I think it should be shocking to everybody, given that this country was built by immigrants and just about everybody in it, other than Native Americans, can trace their roots to an immigrant. When it became clear who the new administration would be, I quickly reached out to Advancing Justice to organize a citizenship clinic and help as many people as possible become citizens, given the uncertainty that most immigrants faced under the new administration.

ACC has also partnered with the Pro Bono Institute. How has that worked?

Dulic: I think that the Pro Bono Institute provides a set of templates and tries to help the in-house community get involved in pro bono. Large companies tend to have their own formal pro bono program, which makes it very easy for people at those companies to participate in those events, but for those of us at smaller companies where you have maybe two or three attorneys, it just isn’t feasible to have a formal pro bono program. So I think they recognize that the majority of in-house counsel are at smaller companies where there are very few attorneys and no formal pro bono programs in place, and they help those companies get involved.  ACC Southern California had initially used some of their resources (such as “Clinic-In-A-Box”) to organize our pro bono clinics, which was very helpful in getting our initiative off the ground.

How many lawyers at Epoch Payment Solutions?

Dulic: We have four attorneys.

In a small shop like that, has it been difficult to find the time and flexibility to do as much as you’ve done?

Dulic: It takes a lot of work. There’s no question about it. But, again, I get a lot out of it, so I make a point to get it done. It’s like everything in life – if you want to do it, you’re going to make time for it. If you don’t, you’re going to find excuses not to do it.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned from your experiences with pro bono work, either directly or through observation of the programs?

Dulic: I think a lot of us, especially in-house, tend to be specialists in an area, and we think we can only provide services in that area. We don’t realize that a lot of the services that pro bono clients need are pretty basic. When you go to a citizenship clinic, for example, you’re really just reviewing a form that any attorney should be able to get through. There may be some issues that pop up that you may not have intimate knowledge of, but obviously organizations like Advancing Justice specialize in those areas, so you can always ask questions on the spot. There is a lot that you can offer as an attorney, even though you may not be an expert in that area of the law. I think that’s the number one lesson I learned.

Other than that, I think a lot of people are probably surprised by the amount of joy they get out of it. I don’t think you’ll ever find anybody more grateful than a pro bono client. In a sense, it can be a life-changing exercise, because pro bono work tends to give you perspective like nothing else. We all get busy with never-ending deadlines, and it’s easy to forget why you got into this profession to begin with. Meeting these pro bono clients and seeing what difficulties they are facing on a daily basis reminds you why you became a lawyer.

Adriana Dulic is Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at Epoch Payment Solutions, where she is responsible for development and implementation of a wide range of legal and compliance policies, including anti-money laundering, privacy, data security, consumer protection and e-commerce. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Southern California chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, and she serves as chair of its pro bono committee.