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/)