Shook Associate Drawn to Prisoners' Rights Cases

In addition to her work defending clients in product liability litigation, Shook Associate Mayela Montenegro-Urch represents pro bono clients in difficult civil rights and criminal cases. Get to know Montenegro-Urch and her pro bono legal work in our Q&A interview:

You represented a Spanish speaker in a federal court appeal. Tell us about your work on the case. Had you worked with a client in that capacity before? 

Through the Public Law Center in Orange County, CA, we received a case involving a monolingual Spanish-speaking client who was appealing the denial of his Social Security disability benefits. The appeal was in federal court, and given my background in federal court and my fluency in Spanish, I took on the case with a partner at my office. We were successful in showing that the administrative law judge who denied our client’s Social Security benefits was biased against our client because he only spoke Spanish and could not articulate the basis for his claim due to the language barrier, among other grounds. The federal court judge reversed the administrative law judge’s decision, and remanded the case to a different administrative law judge who ultimately found that his Social Security disability benefits were warranted.

I enjoyed the opportunity to help provide a client with access to our legal system. Our client’s claim was meritorious, and it took two years of an appeal to make him whole. I am proud of the work we did.

How did you get involved in representing California prisoners? Do you have any memories that stand out in your work representing prisoners? 

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California reaches out to our office—and Partner Amir Nassihi, in particular—about having Shook associates take on prisoners’ rights cases. I have already volunteered for a few, and am currently working on one that will likely go to trial in early 2022.

The first prisoner’s rights case I worked on resulted in a successful settlement. After the case settled and our client received compensation, he later called me to say that this legal proceeding inspired him to start taking paralegal classes while in prison. He enjoyed being part of our discussions involving strategy and being part of the decision-making process.  

Why do you do pro bono legal work?

“To whom much has been given, much will be expected.” I do pro bono legal work because I have been blessed with particular talents and skills that enable me to help others. As an immigrant Latina woman, it is important to me that low-income, historically underrepresented communities have access to justice, and it is my responsibility to assist with that effort.