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Doing Good, Doing Well – The Beneficial Impact of Pro Bono on Your Professional Life

Thursday, October 02, 2003

  • By: Tiela Chalmers
  • Organization: Volunteer Legal Services Program

Doing Good, Doing Well
The Beneficial Impact of Pro Bono on Your Professional Life

By Tiela Chalmers

You are sitting at your desk, minding your own business, when the phone rings. A friend at another firm has signed up to take on a pro bono case through the local bar association, and wants you to sign up, too. Take a pro bono case? With the demand for billable hours as high as it is?? Surely he is jesting. Not only do you feel you have no time to take another case; imagine what damage it would do to your reputation in the firm, if the partners learned that you were spending your time on a pro bono case instead of a profitable, billable matter? Chuckling to yourself, you tell him no, and hang up. At least, you reflect, some decisions you face are easy.

But wait - were you right? Would taking a case pro bono have been the death knell of your career or - might it be just the professional boost you need? Is it possible that doing pro bono not only is not damaging to your career, but is actually beneficial to it? Could it be that you can do well by doing good?

In fact, doing pro bono work can offer you a significant leg up on your professional development in addition to connecting you to the larger community in a meaningful way. Of course, some people choose to do pro bono work simply because they believe it to be a rewarding thing to do. But in today's legal climate, with increased demand for litigation services and billable hour requirements at an all-time high, and the economy pinching solo and small firm attorneys, many are turning to pro bono because it is also a financially and professionally wise move. Here are some compelling reasons why pro bono can make a positive contribution to your career, whether you are a seasoned attorney, freshly out of law school, or somewhere in between. Pro bono is also good for the business of law firms, whether large, small, or so.

  1. You can have more impact than ever now when you do pro bono work
    Pro bono work has always been an important part of American society, but with federal funding dramatically slashed and the numbers of disadvantaged people increasing, the impact you can make is even greater than before. The need for legal assistance has never been greater. An economy that increasingly favors higher income individuals and families, the restrictions of welfare reform and racial and gender discrimination have placed poor people in a terrible situation, and frequently they need legal help to address the myriad problems this position entails.

    At the same time as this demand has increased, the supply of lawyers willing to help the low-income community has decreased, as funding for legal services has been drastically reduced. In addition, funding restrictions on legal services programs prohibit the pursuit of most kinds of class-action or impact litigation. One of the few remaining resources in those circumstances for the low income community is you, the pro bono lawyer. The need for your involvement, and the impact you can have, have never been greater.

  2. Doing pro bono work increases your firm's visibility
    Pro bono is good for business. Firms want to be known to be good community citizens. Both potential clients and potential new attorneys often ask about a firm's pro bono efforts. In addition, taking high profile cases gives the firm positive press. Finally, sometimes firms have made commitments to devote a certain number of hours to pro bono work, especially through the national Pro Bono Challenge, and despite some immediate recalcitrance, are actually anxious to fulfill that promise. In San Francisco 19 firms signed a pro bono pledge agreeing to spend 3-5% of their billable hours on pro bono work. If you work in one of those firms, you can do your firm a good turn by taking on a pro bono case.

  3. Doing pro bono work yourself and encouraging others to join you keeps good attorneys in your firm
    One problem facing law firms and partnerships of all sizes today is retention: even during an economic downturn, attorneys are keenly aware of firm lifestyle and firm culture, and feel free to move to another firm if the one they are with doesn't make them happy. Since turnover can be very draining, financially and practically, it has become even more important to pay attention to and facilitate the things that make good attorneys want to stay. At the top of that list is pro bono.

  4. Pro bono work can build esprit de corps with your colleagues
    Working on a pro bono case together can be a team-building experience. Focusing on a common goal forges ties that will continue beyond the case. Interestingly, this bonding effect extends beyond the team handling the pro bono matter - if the case is high profile, and the firm is receiving public recognition, even people who didn't work on the case feel proud of the firm's contribution.

  5. Doing pro bono work stands you in good stead with judges and courtroom staff
    Many judges actively support pro bono work. Not only do they believe it to be important for the community - it's also good for their courtrooms. Without pro bono assistance, many litigants are forced to represent themselves. People who are representing themselves usually need a lot of assistance from court staff and from the bench. Hearings can go on significantly longer as the judge explains the procedure to the pro per litigant, and frequently matters are continued several times when the pro per party has not completed the paperwork properly, or given adequate notice to the other side. Judges are therefore grateful whenever someone who would otherwise be pro per is represented by a pro bono attorney.

    Some judges show this gratitude in quite public ways. In San Francisco, for example, pro bono attorneys filing papers in family court get preference on the motion calendar, state and federal judges attend an exclusive party for volunteer attorneys, and the Chief Judge of the federal court and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court called a meeting of large firms to ask them to make a commitment to pro bono. It certainly can't hurt to be well regarded by the bench.

  6. Doing pro bono work can be a excellent rainmaking opportunity
    Some pro bono programs offer opportunities to work alongside attorneys from other firms, or alongside counsel from a corporate legal department. Either way, it gives you a chance to meet and bond with people who may well be a source of future business. VLSP, for example, runs a drop-in clinic for people who are homeless. Often the volunteer attorneys who help staff this clinic include solo practitioners, small firm attorneys, attorneys at large firms, and in-house counsel. The clinic provides an opportunity for attorneys to meet each other and to build the sense of camaraderie that comes from working for a common goal. That sense of camaraderie offers the chance to create lasting ties and the professional as well as social benefits that such ties can produce.

  7. Doing pro bono work offers you invaluable courtroom and jury trial experience
    It is frequently difficult for associates in large, medium or even small firms to get a chance to argue a significant motion, negotiate a settlement, or handle a jury trial - there is just too much at stake, and paying clients tend to want the partner they hired to handle the big stuff. It can take years to get a chance to litigate the significant portions of the case, and your lack of experience in those areas can hold you back professionally. But you can do all of those things right away on a pro bono case. At Volunteer Legal Services Program in San Francisco, for example, attorneys right out of law school (after they go through our landlord-tenant training) find themselves handling all aspects of an eviction case - from preliminary motions, to discovery, to settlement negotiations and a jury trial.

    More senior attorneys also find this experience important, since it gives them the chance to increase the number of jury trials they have handled.

    This experience is all the more valuable because each procedural step of an eviction suit is identical to a business law matter - except smaller, and quicker. Trial briefs are 5 pages, depositions last an hour or two, voir dire only takes a couple of hours at most, and trial generally takes place within a month of the filing of the action - but each stage is identical to the steps taken in an enormous antitrust suit.

    If you are in practice on your own, or hoping to strike out on your own, the experience pro bono offers can be invaluable. It's tough to persuade a paying client that they should give you your first divorce case - but if you have already handled two or three cases, you'll have a better chance. In addition, many lawyer referral panels require that you have handled a certain number of cases (often two) before you can have cases referred to you - taking pro bono cases gets you easily to that point.

  8. Doing pro bono work gives newer attorneys the chance to be mentored, so that you learn new skills and gain confidence

    Many programs offer their volunteers the chance to be mentored. While some firms are excellent at mentoring, many find it challenging to find partners and senior associates willing to spend the time to go over a new attorney's questions, and to reassure him or her. And those attorneys who are out on their own, or in small firms without a training program, often discover that it is extremely difficult to find a mentor.

    The staff at the pro bono program, and the volunteer experts who work with them, have as a significant part of their job to provide mentoring, answering questions and providing reassurance. For example, an expert attorney in immigration is assigned to each pro bono asylum case placed through the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. These experts (as well as the Lawyers' Committee staff) are available to answer volunteer attorneys' questions about asylum, both the substantive law, and the procedural quirks of an asylum application. What's more, it's often easier for a new associate to ask questions he or she fears may be dumb, of someone outside the firm.

  9. Doing pro bono work gives you valuable training
    Many pro bono programs offer extensive and thorough training in a subject matter, and in the procedures associated with that area of law. For example, at the Volunteer Legal Services Program, we offer trainings on Landlord-Tenant law, Family law, general poverty law, public benefits, immigration law, and how to incorporate a non-profit, each taught by experts in that field. In addition to providing free MCLE credits, these trainings offer valuable information on both the substantive and procedural aspects of those fields.

    This is particularly useful if you are interested in building a practice in family law, immigration or landlord-tenant law. Your local pro bono organization can provide you with free training that you will be able to use, not only to help the pro bono clients, but also to attract and represent paying clients.

  10. Doing pro bono work offers newer attorneys a chance to show your stuff to one or more partners in your firm
    In most firms, an associate who takes on a case has to have a partner assigned to "supervise" him or her. Unlike more traditional billable assignments, the pro bono case gives the associate a chance to really show that partner what they can do, and how well they can take charge of a case.

  11. Doing pro bono work improves the image of lawyers in the community
    As we know all too well, lawyers have a terrible reputation. We are viewed as being money-grubbing, unethical, self-centered and self-serving. Sadly, the conduct of a few reflects badly on all of us. Happily, however, the positive contributions we make to our communities can help to rehabilitate our profession. As you take on cases on behalf of low income clients, as you provide much-needed assistance to the community's struggling non-profits, you build not only your own good reputation, but also the good reputation of our profession in general. That, of course, will inure to your benefit, as well as to that of your firm or colleagues.

  12. Doing pro bono work keeps your spirits up and makes you feel like you are making a difference
    The problems faced by those excluded from the economic boom and those faced by those benefiting from it have a direct relationship. While many attorneys are busier and more well paid than they have ever been, many have never been more unhappy or felt more disconnected from life. Working on pro bono matters, while no doubt adding to the "no time to breathe" problem, provides:

· A welcome respite from the course of regular business

· A refreshing change of pace

· PERSPECTIVE on what might be viewed as "real" problems, as opposed to those busy lawyers tend to see as problems; getting a glimpse of grinding poverty, illness, and just how hard it is to live as a low wage laborer or homeless person can really bring one's focus back to appreciation for what they have but take for granted.

· A chance to use legal skills to truly change a person's life; "regular" legal work rarely produces that immediate, satisfying result

· Connection with community, with people

· A feeling of "giving back", of working to make your community a better place; this enhances life for us all

· A chance to learn from another human being who is differently situated-we tend to know only those in our natural orbit.

Pro bono is good for the soul and the community - but it is also good for your pocket, and your practice. It offers you the chance to do good, and do well, at the same time. Opportunities are abundant - some major organizations that provide these chances include:

  • Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco - training, mentoring and volunteer opportunities in family law, landlord-tenant law, public benefits law, immigration, homeless advocacy, consumer law, and transactional assistance to non-profits. For more information, contact Tiela Chalmers, Managing Attorney, at (415) 782-9017 or tchalmers@sfbar.org.
  • Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco - training, mentoring and volunteer opportunities in asylum, and through the legal services for entrepreneurs program, and firmwide opportunities for individual and impact cases. For more information, contact Dave Rorick, Legal Assistant, at (415) 543-9444 or drorick@lccr.com.
  • Public Counsel in Los Angeles - training and mentoring in consumer fraud, homelessness prevention, immigration/asylum, children's rights and transactional work. For more information, contact Ted Zepeda, volunteer coordinator, at (213) 385-2977, ext. 125 or tzepeda@publiccounsel.org.
  • Bet Tsedek in Los Angeles - training and mentoring in housing, public benefits, nursing home issues, holocaust reparations work and consumer fraud intake with clients in the mornings. For more information contact Robin Sommerstein at (323) 549-5814 or rsommerstein@bettzedek.org

For more opportunities around the state, check out the Public Interest Clearinghouse website at www.pic.org. We look forward to working with you!

Tiela Chalmers is the Managing Attorney of the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

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