HIAS-PENNSYLVANIA: A ‘No Brainer’ Opportunity for a Young Lawyer

The Philadelphia Bar Reporter

A month into starting as a new attorney at Blank Rome, LLP, I was asked if I was interested in helping with an asylum case for a Honduran mother who is a domestic violence and cancer survivor. The mother had endured a two-week journey to the United States with her two-year old daughter after the daughter’s father had kidnapped the girl and threatened to kill the mother. As the daughter of a single immigrant mother from Nicaragua, it was a no brainer that this was the opportunity for me.

I joined a pro bono team made up of a former Blank Rome attorney who went in-house to Merck, Yoella Epstein; Blank Rome Partner William Cruse, and Associates Erin Coppock and Nicolas Harris. Though I was passionate about joining this team, I was not confident in my ability to help these more senior attorneys, and I was nervous that, as a “baby lawyer,” the team would not trust me.

I was wrong. The team quickly assigned me research and I was asked to draft significant portions of the brief and declaration for our client, with support from the rest of the team and HIAS Pennsylvania, especially Jessica Daly, pro bono coordinator at HIAS Pennsylvania.

Over the two months leading up to the January 2023 merits hearing, the team and I prepared the mother for direct and cross examination, meeting on nights and weekends to accommodate her work schedule.

As a result of my Spanish speaking skills and ability to connect with the client on a personal level, the team entrusted me with leading the direct examination. I was honored yet terrified, because this was going to be my first time in front of a judge. Right before the hearing, the government attorney asked us if we were willing to limit our direct to three areas if he stipulated to the facts as presented in the affidavit. This meant that the mother would not need to testify in detail on the stand about the abuse she endured, but this also meant that I needed to pivot in the moment and cross out a lot of the questions I was intending to ask. I will never forget that as the nerves began to kick in, William Cruse kneeled beside me and said “You got this. You’ve prepared for this moment. You have to trust yourself.”

At the end of limited cross examination, the government attorney announced that the government consented to the mother’s asylum application. The judge promptly granted asylum from the bench based on the mother’s inability to escape domestic violence and granted the daughter derivative status. We were all thrilled!

This case reminded me of my mother and all the opportunities I have had because of her sacrifices. I am so hopeful for all the opportunities our client’s daughter will now have in this country because of her mother’s sacrifices.

I am proud to be part of Blank Rome, a firm that champions pro bono service, and to have worked with a team that provided me so much encouragement. I am also thankful to HIAS Pennsylvania for presenting me with the opportunity and mentoring that enabled me to use my legal training to help this family achieve a life changing result. I can’t imagine a better way to start my career. This day will forever live in my heart, and I can’t wait to do it again.

“HIAS-PENNSYLVANIA: A ‘No Brainer’ Opportunity for a Young Lawyer,” by Scarlett L. Montenegro Ordoñez was published in The Philadelphia Bar Reporter (Vol. 52, No. 4) on April 12, 2023.