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Pro Bono Net

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Oct. 25 - Smorgasbord or prix fixe? Tiela Chalmers, Legal services/pro bono consultant

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net has lined up a variety of guest bloggers from law firms, legal aid organizations and elsewhere to share their pro bono ideas and experiences. This post comes from Tiela Chalmers, a legal services/pro bono consultant and a member of Pro Bono Net's Board of Directors.

Would you like a smattering of every delicious dish we offer, madam? Or would you prefer the prix fixe, with items selected to go together, and a wine pairing? Of course, there's no right answer to this question. It all sounds fabulous; I'll take two, please. But perhaps, in the pro bono world, there is at least a better, if not a right, answer. For many years, law firms have approached pro bono as a smorgasbord. Firms encouraged each lawyer to find the type of pro bono that appealed to them, and explore it. The fact that, at year's end, the firm had handled 4 eviction matters, 3 immigration cases, 2 nonprofit incorporations, 1 uninsured motorist and a partridge in a pear tree was a sign of success: people were doing pro bono, gaining lawyering skills, and finding things that interested them. What could be wrong with that?

Well, nothing, exactly. Like the buffet, it's a great way to let everyone choose exactly what they want. But the prix fixe gives you the impact of what the food is really meant to be. The sweet fig offsets the salty duck confit, and the merlot plays into those flavors. You experience an overall effect of the food that you missed at the buffet. And in pro bono, doing a smattering of cases satisfies the hunger to do good (and do well) but misses the potential effect that the work could have. A focused pro bono program, with all or most participants working towards a unified goal, is the prix fixe of the legal world. It offers a chance to focus efforts and magnify impact. A firm's lawyers become expert in an area, and can handle more complex and challenging cases, where litigants' need is the greatest. With its more sweeping perspective on the area, the firm can do policy work, making systemic change. Attorneys can work in teams and larger groups, building a sense of community and shared purpose often missing in today's siloed practice.

The buffet is tempting, but the prix fixe dinner offers a richer dining experience. And the plum crumble is truly divine.

Tiela Chalmers is a consultant in the fields of legal services and pro bono. She is currently working on several projects, including coordinating the Shriver Housing Project in Los Angeles, the largest of the "civil Gideon" pilot projects in California. Previously the Executive Director of Volunteer Legal Services Program in San Francisco, Tiela worked at VLSP for many years with Tanya Neiman until her death. Prior to VLSP, Tiela was an attorney at Farella, Braun + Martel in San Francisco. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Pro Bono Net.

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