Pro Bono Clinics Can Help You Hone Your Skills

Pro bono clinics not only provide the public with free legal advice, they also offer attorneys a risk-free chance to sharpen their lawyering skills while doing a good deed. And, the attorneys get to do both in a risk-free environment.

Spot the Legal Issues. Now!

I’ve volunteered at two pro bono clinics, one at a shelter in a big city and the other at a courthouse in a suburb. At both, I had 10 minutes to talk to each person. To a deliberate, careful lawyer, that seems more like three seconds. Often the person one is talking to tries to pour out in a minute or two the story of months or years of trouble. In order to give any helpful advice, the attorney must find a way to “spot the issues” in the narrative. This is a skill that (unlike spotting issues on law school exams) you will need every time you speak to a potential client. The ability to quickly separate potential clients from everyone else you meet is a crucial time-management and client-development skill.

Attorney Skill Development, Risk-Free

In addition to helping someone in need, you get to do it risk-free. Any competently-run pro bono clinic requires those seeking advice to read and sign a document that indicates that no attorney-client relationship is formed. Many states also have special ethics rules that protect attorneys volunteering in pro bono clinics. This protection frees you to try different ways of handling these interactions. I found that the more I volunteered, the more effective I became at spotting legal issues and immediately developing possible legal remedies. I also improved my ability to connect on a human level, which, in building a practice, is also as important as providing quality legal analysis. Knowing that I could not suffer any negative consequences based on the advice I gave freed me to tinker with my approach. It also allowed me to enjoy doing the work.

Now, Don’t You Feel Better?

Finally, every lawyer, (well, one would hope) understands that we often traffic in human misery, and is aware of the psychological and emotional toll that results. Giving of yourself is a great treatment. I’ve found that while donating money to charity is fine, giving my time to actually do something is much better. Every time I volunteered at the pro bono clinic, I would come home, hug my kids, and feel a bit like a new person, not because I had done a lot to help those folks, but because my perspective on my own tremendous good fortune had returned.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rainiernavidad/2776596693/)

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  • This is so true. The news about law jobs is not good these days. The legal job market recently hit a three year low. Even for those with job offers in hand or for current junior associates, the job market can seem precarious and daunting. For recent law graduates without jobs the picture is bleak but they can improve their chances of getting and keeping a job: pro bono.

  • While I am happy to see encouragement for new lawyers to do pro bono, I am concerned about the implication that no attorney client relationship is formed during a legal clinic or that there is somehow a “no risk” exemption to providing quality legal assistance to pro bono clinic clients. At least in Minnesota, a lot of work has been done to clarify that the relationship between clinic client and attorney is one of limited duration. This doesn’t mean the normal Rules of Professional Conduct do not apply – rather, it’s a recognition of the more narrow scope of that representation.

    Every lawyer has an obligation to do their best for each person they serve, paid or pro bono, clinic or extended representation. New lawyers should certainly take advantage of the opportunity to do pro bono work because it’s good for the soul, as well as the resume. But, the opportunity comes with the same responsibilities as any other practice endeavor.