Giving Back with Your Time and Talents
For double Bearcat Tom Cuni (BA 1969, JD 1975), the practice of law is about more than bringing home a paycheck.
“People who come to law have this imperative to help people and make a living,” says Cincinnati Law alum Tom Cuni.
“There’s a good deal of satisfaction in doing that.” Cuni has had a long, successful career, primarily spent representing small businesses. As a partner at Cuni, Ferguson & LeVay Co., LPA, he represented clients in 600+ civil cases with approximately 100 going to trial to either the bench or a jury. These days he no longer represents clients in his legal practice, but he does volunteer his time for work in the Hamilton County Juvenile Court along with helping local non-profits and mentoring law students.
Getting Started on the Volunteer Train
Cuni started volunteering at Cincinnati Law a few years ago when, speaking at a Coffee Corner hosted by the Center for Professional Development, he learned the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic (ECDC) needed supervising attorneys. “I thought it’d be a good fit,” he commented.
Cuni’s decades of small firm experience and background in representing small businesses made him a great fit for ECDC. He spent several semesters supervising and mentoring clinic students, even working over the summer with them at the Hamilton County Business Center and Mortar, a local entrepreneurship lab.
“I really have a good time,” he said.
In addition to supervising, he was worked with the ECDC to bring legal seminars to the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati; he also plans to assist with organizing a seminar for Mortar clients later this year.
“The Clinic has a remarkable learning curve,” he said. “You can see a significant difference in the students from the start to the end of the semester. That’s one of reasons I love volunteering to work with law students, especially at the start of their careers.
“Besides, I like being busy,” Cuni, who jokingly refers to himself as ‘semi-retired,’ said.
He shared that he likes to be involved. In fact, for most of his professional life, he has been involved in some form of volunteer work, starting with the local Bar Association in the 90s. This led to position as a trustee on the board and, eventually, to the position as Cincinnati Bar Association Board president. “This took a good deal of my time, but I realized my business did very well when I was very busy.” He acknowledged he learned to manage his time efficiently and make decisions quickly. He didn’t have time to waste.
But as Cuni left the role of board president, he was approached by three representatives involved with ProKids, a non-profit organization which provides help for abused, neglected, or dependent children who are involved in proceedings in the Hamilton County Juvenile Court. They invited him to bring his skills and talents to that board and organization. Now, he spends two to three days per week volunteering as an attorney for ProKids’ Guardians ad Litem who look after the best interest of the children in the court system.
“I started as a litigator and I created my job all over. It’s just for free now,” he says.
“I rarely see the kids I help. I deal with the guardian ad litem. A good amount of the time, though, the kids really benefit. I like to believe that their lives are changed for the better in part because of the work that I do.”
Connecting the Dots; Paying it Forward
After a hearing one day, Magistrate Scheherazade Washington spoke with him about the need for more lawyers to work in this this practice area. “I asked her ‘What does this mean to me? Am I supposed to do something?’ The magistrate smiled and said yes.”
After getting some good advice on the subject, Cuni helped bring together Tracy Cook, the Executive Director of ProKids and a UC law alum; Verna Williams, now interim dean of the College; and Kimberly Helfrich, the Director of the Guardian ad Litem Division of the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office to talk about what they could do to start addressing this issue.
The result was a Juvenile Law class which takes students through a typical juvenile court case. “I think the class was very successful and I hope it continues,” Cuni said.
Not content to volunteer in just these areas, Cuni also is working with ECDC Director Lew Goldfarb on a new project that would expand legal services in the community. “It is an interesting project we’re developing,” he said. More details will be coming soon!
For Cuni, volunteering isn’t just about doing what he feels is right. It also has practical implications.
“People hire who they know. Join community organizations. Meet people. Talk with them. Volunteer your time and skills. It doesn’t immediately result in business, but over time people will get to know you and will hire you—because they know who you are (and have worked alongside you)” says Cuni.
“You can find real satisfaction from that part of your life [volunteering]. Personally, I know I’ve helped with projects that have value and that I’ve helped to influence. You get the sense you’re helping to make positive changes.
“And that’s a good feeling.”