The Case for Pro Bono Work

We’ve all heard about the importance of doing pro bono work. But, as busy attorneys, how is it a “win-win” for us? How can it benefit the pro bono clients (which is fairly obvious) and benefit us professionally and personally (which is what we sometimes forget)?

Of course, doing pro bono work is a kind, good, and noble thing to do. We have skills as lawyers that can serve the good of those who could not otherwise afford legal services, and there are solid ethical imperatives and reasons for which to use some of our time providing pro bono representation.

Yet we can learn a great deal about ourselves as attorneys and individuals by taking the time to do pro bono.

The benefits generally fall into three categories:

Professional Development

We can’t learn everything in law school, and we won’t learn everything we need to know as new associates, at least not right away. No matter what your practice area or kind of legal employer, you can learn a significant amount by serving the needs of others through pro bono work.

Learn another practice area

If you tackle a case in a practice area outside of your typical one, you might just learn substantive skills that could create competence in a whole new area of law. Especially when you are doing pro bono work, your colleagues and peers are much more apt to support you and help you learn the ropes of an area you aren’t particularly familiar with but want to master for the benefit of your client.

Acquire practice and case management skills

There is so much to discover about being a practicing attorney that you can both learn and improve on by taking pro bono cases; you could learn professional interaction skills, case management and prioritization skills, organizational skills, and much more that you might not have had the chance to gain knowledge of on the job thus far in your career. Additionally, these type cases might give you litigation experience and skills that you haven’t been exposed to yet as a newer attorney. No matter what your practice area, improving your litigation and case management skills is never a bad thing.

Improve client relationship abilities

If you haven’t had a lot of direct interaction with clients, you might not have developed the strongest client communication and relationship development skills. Pro bono work allows you to have this one-on-one interaction which will likely lead to, among other things, improved skills in setting and managing client expectations, communicating effectively and consistently, and navigating client meetings.

Client Development

Doing pro bono gets you out there into the community in a meaningful way. Through this kind of work, you will likely get to know a good number of people in the non-profit world, a world you might not get exposed to in other ways. While future clients might not come to you from the work or agency directly (though they could), you never know who you might meet that could later become a client or referral source for you. Imagine: you could connect with another attorney who is also doing pro bono work for the same agency and you become referral sources for each other. Or maybe your outstanding commitment and work catch the eye of a key board member or stakeholder in the agency who then refers you or your firm to their organization. Pro bono work is a terrific way to develop your client base and book of business.

Good, clean fun

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the billable hours and intensity of your regular, day-to-day work. When we do this, our sense of balance suffers which ultimately throws off our ability to perform at our best personally and professionally. Pro bono work allows us to learn something new while serving people who really need us and the work we are providing. Our firms generally like that we are doing it. It feels good. It’s meaningful. It reminds us that, at the end of the day, we as lawyers can and do make a positive difference in the lives of real people.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/controlarms/5861481206/)

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  • http://www.atlantaparalegalservices.com Misty Sheffield

    Kendra, Your points are excellent. I am a civil litigation paralegal, but I volunteer as a Victim and Witness Advocate. I don’t want to work in criminal law full-time, but the volunteer work allows me to gain experience in criminal law without working in it everyday. I also find it very rewarding. People are more grateful when you are giving them your time instead of being paid for it.

  • Kevin L. Deeb

    Kendra, this is an incredibly insightful post. Although I am currently the President of the South Miami Kendall Bar, I held the Pro Bono Chair position for many years beforehand. During my tenure as chair, we received the Voluntary Bar Association Pro Bono Award from the Dade County Bar, which is a testament to the dedication and hard work of our attorney members.

    I must say, however, that it was always the same attorneys who accepted pro bono cases and it was difficult to convince those who rarely (or never) took cases to take them on. My pet project was to connect paralegal students from a local technical school with attorneys on cases as they were being accepted. I believe that by doing so, the attorney has a helping hand and the paralegal gets both experience and a chance to promote themselves and meet attorneys for future career opportunities. This was, I thought, a sure-fire way of getting more attorneys involved. Unfortunately, my project has not taken off because most paralegal students fear that their inexperience and lack of free time will hinder them. And the attorneys do not see the value in having a newbie helping them.

    Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  • Kari

    Don’t under-estimate nonprofits as a source for paying clients. I work for a small nonprofit, and we refer potential (paying) clients to private lawyers we have met because of their involvement with the Volunteer Lawyers Network. This happens almost every day. Resources are tight so we can’t help a lot of people. When they call we send them to legal aid if they are low-income. If they aren’t income-eligible we refer them to our private-practice friends.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    Despite the (very real) benefits you mention, pro bono work is something you have to do without expecting anything in return. If you do, good things will probably come to you. If you do expect something in return, you will probably be disappointed.

  • Zanne

    Kendra,
    I enjoyed your article and agreed with what you said. I believe that, as a fortunate person with an education and access, I have an obligation to those without either. I don’t take pro bono work through my bar association; I get mine from my potential clients – ones who clearly need help and have no resources. I certainly cannot assist everyone, but I make certain to keep one case ongoing. As that case winds up, I take on another. (There’s no shortage of work, either.) My personal experience has been that white shoe firms in my area are way less likely to assist truly indigent people; they will represent family members of paying clients for a little less. Solos and smalls do most of the true pro bono that is done in my area; the rest go to legal aid or do without. I cannot explain that split except to say that the solo/small literally sees the need up close and in person where a white shoe doesn’t? Regardless, I try to meet my personal obligation to make my corner of the world a better place in this manner.

  • http://www.bobleonard.com/ Bob Leonard

    When I added a practice area (family law) in, well let’s just say the last millennium, one of the first things that I did was to take several pro bono cases. By doing that, I got to know the judges (and they knew me), I got experience in that practice area, I was a little sympathetic in court.

    When I advise new lawyers about starting out, I always suggest that they take pro bono cases to gain experience, competence, and confidence. I also encourage them to continue even after they get in the groove.