Womble Bond Dickinson Attorney Brittany Teague normally spends her days helping corporate clients buy, sell and finance their commercial real estate. But on a recent June afternoon, she and 59 other attorneys and paralegals from Truist and Womble Bond Dickinson came together in Charlotte and Winston-Salem (as well as virtually) for a crash course in criminal record expunctions.
“Drafting petitions for expunction is not in my wheelhouse, but this project is a worthy cause,” Teague said. “Part of my motivation for becoming a lawyer was the opportunity to have an impact on clients and the community.”
The training is part of a pro bono initiative led by Legal Aid of North Carolina and designed to help North Carolinians receive a second chance in society. Truist invited Womble Bond Dickinson to participate in the project, and attorneys from Truist and WBD have been paired together to work on expunction cases. Attorneys Joshua Cox and Gina Reyman from Legal Aid led the training session and two follow-up Q&A sessions, and are overseeing the pro bono project.
A criminal record can be a huge barrier to employment and housing, and these collateral consequences disproportionately affect minority communities in North Carolina. Criminal records eligible for expunction in North Carolina generally include dismissed charges, charges for which a person was found not guilty of or not responsible for, as well as certain misdemeanors and certain non-violent felonies. Criminal record expunction can provide a real and permanent difference to people looking for a fresh start.
“To me, this was a small way to remedy some of the racial disparities in our justice system. I am grateful to work at Truist where I am encouraged to get involved and make changes that make the lives of our clients and our communities better,” said Delesa Tillery, a paralegal in Truist’s Legal Department and one of the organizers of the pro bono project.
The state’s Second Chance Act, which was signed into law in 2020, broadens access to certain types of expunctions. The training provided by Legal Aid taught participants how to analyze and read criminal records as well as the eligibility standards for expunctions. Teams of WBD attorneys and Truist lawyers and paralegals each will be assigned two to three cases after completing the training. In all, volunteers expect to complete 60 expunctions.
This work will require drafting advice letters to clients, writing letters to clerks’ offices and closing letters to be issued by Legal Aid, and generating draft petitions for expunction.
The latter task has been made easier by Legal Aid’s new Expunction Petition Generation Tool — software that automates some of the expunction petition processes. The tool was developed by a group of volunteers from Code for Durham. While Legal Aid has used this tool in-house, this project is the first time they have employed it in conjunction with community volunteers.
Truist, a long-time firm client, approached WBD with the idea of a collaborative pro bono project. WBD attorney Gemma Saluta coordinated the firm’s involvement in the effort and she said firm leaders and attorneys eagerly agreed to participate.
“Everybody wins in this relationship,” Saluta said. Firm attorneys get to build relationships with a valued client, Legal Aid gets volunteer help from experienced lawyers, and most of all, 60 people get a clean slate to help rebuild their lives, she said.
“Pro bono projects are often singular, but you can make a bigger impact if you have a coordinated project,” Saluta said.
Ellen Fitzsimmons, Chief Legal Officer, Head of Public Affairs and Corporate Secretary of Truist said, “Truist’s purpose is to inspire and build better lives and communities. To that end, Truist is incredibly proud to have 30 of its Legal Department teammates volunteer with Legal Aid of N.C. and Womble Bond Dickinson to provide pro bono services to those in North Carolina deserving of second chance in life through this expunction project.”
Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP Chair & CEO Betty Temple said, “As lawyers, we are in a position of trust and respect – and it is important that we give something back to our communities. We appreciate our good client Truist for asking us to participate in this pro bono project and we certainly are glad to help.”
While Teague isn’t ready to trade in her commercial real estate practice for criminal law, she said the pro bono project has been a rewarding experience. “It’s a personal impact you are making — it’s a great way to give back,” she said.