As an employment lawyer in the London office of the US law firm Covington & Burling LLP, I am used to advising multinational corporations and working day-to-day alongside experienced general counsels and human resources directors. As a result, sitting across a table last spring from a 17-year-old East London teenager in one of Covington’s conference rooms was as unusual for me as it must have been for her.

I was meeting with a new pro bono client, Karla (not her real name), together with my colleagues Kamakshi Venkataramanan and Julia Steinhardt. Karla had been referred to Covington through our partnership with Kids in Need of Defense UK, a charity that supports undocumented children and young people with their immigration status. It is a collaboration between US charity KIND, which was founded in the US by Angelina Jolie and the Microsoft Corporation, Central England Law Centre, Coram Children’s Legal Centre and Migrant Children’s Legal Unit at Islington Law Centre. Kids in Need of Defense UK was set up to ensure that cuts to legal aid in England and Wales would not disadvantage some of the UK’s most vulnerable children and young people.

Karla needed our help with submitting an application to the Home Office for leave to remain in the UK. She was turning 18 in a matter of weeks, at which point she would have to apply as an adult, not a child. Since it is even harder to succeed in an application for leave to remain as an adult, Karla’s application needed to be submitted urgently.

At the time of our initial meeting with Karla, neither Kamakshi, Julia or I had any experience advising on immigration law. So how could we help her?

That’s where the Kids in Need of Defense representation model comes in. After an initial training session, we were joined at the meeting and supervised throughout the application process, by Anna Skehan, an experienced immigration lawyer. With Anna’s expert knowledge to guide us, we felt confident in our ability to provide the best possible representation to Karla. From the charity’s perspective, Anna, and the other legal advisors who work with the charity, can reach and support far more clients with the assistance of teams of pro bono lawyers than they could acting alone.

Who are the clients being helped by Kids in Need of Defense UK and firms like Covington? Every client has a different story, but all are children or teenagers who need help with immigration and citizenship matters.

In Karla’s case, she was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and travelled to the UK lawfully at the age of eight, to join her mother who had previously moved to London. After suffering abuse, Karla became estranged from her mother and was eventually taken in by an aunt. With the support of her aunt, Karla was able to achieve good GCSEs and progress to her school’s sixth form. As she approached the end of her schooling and started applying to universities to continue her education, she was dismayed to discover that her initial immigration clearance had expired in 2011 and had not been renewed by her mother.

As a result, Karla had been living unlawfully in the UK for six years. She had no family in the DRC who would be able to support her financially and removal would have placed her at grave risk as an unaccompanied teenager in a country with a terrible human rights record, particularly in relation to sexual crimes against women.

Karla’s best option was to apply for leave to remain before her 18th birthday. In addition to completing a complex application form (that was a challenge even for three city lawyers and would have been almost impossible for an unrepresented teenager), Karla’s application form needed to be accompanied by detailed legal submissions demonstrating that she had been in the UK for seven continuous years and that being removed to the DRC would breach her human right to a private and family life. Every aspect of our legal submission needed to be supported by evidence, ranging from detailed records of Karla’s school attendance to reports by the UN and others into the social, political and human rights landscape in the DRC.

Another challenge for Karla’s application was the fee that is charged by the Home Office for submitting an application, roughly £1,500. As a full-time student with no right to work in the UK, Karla had no means of accessing this sort of money, nor did her aunt have the financial means to help. This meant that Karla’s application would only have a chance of success if the Home Office was willing to waive the fee, which involved a separate application with detailed supporting evidence of both Karla’s and her aunt’s financial situation.

After several weeks of painstaking work, Karla’s application was ready to submit to the Home Office. We prepared for a nervous wait, which Anna had warned us could last several months. To our surprise, the Home Office accepted the fee waiver request in a little over two weeks. Just two months after we submitted the application, Karla was granted leave to remain in the UK with recourse to public funds.

Telephoning Karla to tell her the good news is definitely one of the highlights of my career. Having endured a tough start to life, she was finally able to plan for her future. It was an incredible privilege to help her on her journey.

Helena Milner-Smith is special counsel at Covington & Burling LLP