Michelle T.L. Hernandez often thought that part of her duties as a lawyer was to give back.
In some states, it’s a requirement. In Wisconsin, not so much, although the Rules of Professional Conduct do strongly encourage lawyers to carve out 50 hours a year for the greater good.
But after a second marriage to a fellow attorney left her trying to find time for four kids and a new law firm, Hernandez found herself putting her charitable inclinations in the backseat for an indefinite period of time.
Then last fall, Hernandez and her husband, Mark Krueger, their nest suddenly empty and their law firm on seemingly solid ground, began considering the existential side of their professional lives.
“You work so hard. You get over the hump of being a new lawyer, and then things are going good. You meet your goals, and I thought that was going to be it. Then, I’ll have my peace and joy. And it felt good,” said Hernandez, who is a partner at Kruger & Hernandez, which has offices in Middleton and Baraboo. “But it didn’t fill me like I thought. I still found myself looking for more.”
Their search led them to church, where the altruistic example they saw week after week inspired Krueger and Hernandez to start the Global Presence Free Legal Clinic. In the end, the endeavor led them not only to change their practice in order to support their dreams but, along the way, to look for answers to questions they hadn’t even recognized that they had been asking:
What if you could give back just because it felt good, because it was the right thing to do? And not just for the community. What if giving back was the right thing for you?
“That’s where the heart started pulling,” Hernandez said.
Of course, all that soul-searching had a practical component.
“How can we give back if we’re at the firm?” Hernandez asked. “We decided to change our hours at the law practice.”
So, instead of working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, the firm would be open 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, leaving Fridays free and clear for the clinic, apart from a few hours of flex time for the moms on staff.
“The old Michelle would have said, ‘No way! This won’t work,’” Hernandez said. “But the new Michelle, who’s more faith-filled, was like, ‘Hey, if I can’t trust my employee for three hours on their own, that’s a problem.”
For more information on the organizations discussed in this story, contact:
So, every Friday morning — and, Krueger hopes, eventually every Friday afternoon — Krueger and Hernandez head to Global Presence in Monona, where they answer questions about everything from bankruptcy, divorce and landlord-tenant disputes to personal injury, OWIs and child custody.
“It’s the greatest thing,” Krueger said. “It’s what we all went to law school for. When I’m doing this, I’m not worried about making payroll and billable hours. We’re just here trying to help people. It’s kind of my happy hour. There’s a lot of energy, and it’s improved our attitude. On Monday morning, I get up and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to work. On Friday morning, I say, ‘I get to go to the legal clinic.’ That’s the difference.”
And, Hernandez and Krueger said, it hasn’t affected their full-time practice, at least not in a harmful way.
“We haven’t lost any money. In fact, we’re making more revenue. I’m not sure how that’s happening,” Krueger said.
“Must be karma,” Hernandez teased.
Karmic payoff or not, Krueger said, their experience doesn’t have to be an isolated one. Krueger hopes the clinics sprout up around the state and throughout the country. He said he could see recent law school graduates, such as his son, Andrew, representing clients whom they are matched up with through a network of free clinics.
They might provide advice in coffee shops, libraries and courthouse offices while earning experience and, maybe, even a reduction in their law school loans. But whether lawyers rally to Global Presence or find a different way, Krueger said, they should be doing something.
“I was the busiest lawyer on the face of the Earth. And, guess what? Nothing has changed.” said Krueger, who specializes in personal injury, family law and civil litigation when he’s not also doing vaccine litigation, whereas Hernandez does estate planning and runs the firm. “But we can all spare a few hours a week. I don’t care what lawyer.
“We’re not anything extra special. We just carved out some time and changed our lives a little bit to make ourselves available.”
Of course, not every lawyer is inclined to upend a practice to accommodate a passion project.
And, according to Maria Kreiter, a shareholder and member of the litigation team at Godfrey and Kahn in Milwaukee, there are many ways lawyers can volunteer, including just calling and saying, “What do you need?”
Whether it’s buying a table at an annual fundraiser or giving to a favorite cause, or it’s taking part in a golf outing to learn more about an organization you’re still unfamiliar with, Kreiter said, the monetary support can be just as important – and fulfilling – as giving time.
But, for those in favor of a more boots-on-the-ground approach, Kreiter said, finding time for volunteering is easier when you’re interested in the cause.
“I think attorneys in particular have an obligation to be involved with pro bono efforts, volunteer efforts, something that gives back to the community,” said Kreiter, who is the 2015 Wisconsin Law Journal Woman of the Year. “Every attorney should find an organization that speaks to them.”
For Kreiter, that’s The Coalition for Children, Youth & Families, a Milwaukee-area non-profit group that supports the foster-family community, including social workers, foster parents and post-adoptive families, who, like Kreiter, have adopted foster children.
Kreiter first found The Coalition, formerly known as Adoption Resources of Wisconsin, while looking for license training in being a foster parent. After adopting their foster children, Kreiter and her husband, Ryan, continued with the organization, which provides everything from referrals, educational materials and webinars to family-photo events and a private Facebook page, where foster parents can ask for advice, supplies such as clothing and even meals for families with critically ill children.
“Little things like that can be a bright spot,” Kreiter said.
And not just for the families relying on coalition resources.
For Kreiter, who joined the coalition’s board this past December, being involved administratively has helped her not only to stay connected but also to further a mission she’s both benefitted from and come to believe in.
“It’s just been personally fulfilling.”
And it hasn’t taken much time.
“Foster care is on my mind when I’m getting my cup of coffee in the morning before work. That’s what I think about, so I don’t think about it in terms of hours.”
But, Kreiter said, the phone call here and Facebook check there don’t add up to much, particularly since the board does not meet every month.
Even if it did, Kreiter said, the time would still be worth spending
“Given the kind of a hectic schedule I have as an attorney, to me, I just can’t think of a more worthy cause. It really does make an exponentially important difference in the lives of our city’s children and in turn our city.”