Defining Pro Bono
Pro bono publico (“for the public good”), or pro bono work, is the offering of free or low-cost services to those who cannot afford them. Pro bono is either required or strongly encouraged in the legal community for all lawyers and is not limited to those who chose public service as a career. The American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct state that every lawyer has an obligation to perform 50 hours of pro bono work at low or no cost to varied individuals or groups. The rule also suggests pro bono can be done in the furtherance of improving the law, the legal system, or the profession. If pro bono hasn’t been top of mind for you in your legal career thus far, here are some reasons why you should consider taking on pro bono work.
If you are a newer lawyer, your days can be spent slogging through document review and other low-level work—probably not what you imagined your days would be like when you were daydreaming about becoming a lawyer. Taking on a pro bono matter allows you to practice and develop the skills that you may not otherwise get early on in your career. Pro bono work often puts you in control of a matter, whether it be direct client interaction, writing briefs, taking depositions, or arguing in court. Gaining that exposure early and building your credentials prepares you for when your career advances and the day-to-day work demands those skills. Pro bono matters can also put you in direct contact with partners and senior associates who oversee those case assignments. Showing those above you the valuable work you can provide and the skills you’ve gained is great exposure to help your career advancement.
If you are in law school, pro bono cases are a great break from the theoretical and textbook nature of the classroom. You will interact with real clients facing real needs which allows you to finally put into practice all that classroom knowledge. Pro bono work can also let you narrow down the type of work you want to do once you become a lawyer. Many schools allow students to perform pro bono in areas from tax to contracts to criminal law to domestic law, just to name a few. Engaging in different practice areas may expose you to work you would not have otherwise been inclined to do (and vice versa). Gaining real, hands-on experience is also a great resume booster.
If you have been practicing law for a while or are stuck in a legal area that you do not enjoy (yes, it happens), take on some pro bono work. Breaking away from the drudgery of your daily grind to assist on a pro bono matter can reinvigorate your enthusiasm for the law and remind you why you became a lawyer in the first place. A pro bono case often puts you one-on-one with a client and allows you to put a face to the task. Too often in BigLaw, lawyers don’t necessarily see the benefits of their hard work outside of a paycheck or a compliment from a senior member of the team. Working on a case that is life-changing to your pro bono client and experiencing the desired outcome can have a profound effect on everyone involved. There is no shortage of worthwhile cases to get involved in, from asylum and immigration to housing issues to death row petitions—all issues where you can have a profound impact on another person’s life, and maybe just bring a spark back into your own life as well.
Upholding Access to Justice
When asked why they want to be a lawyer, many will say because they want to help people. Choosing between a career doing well (as in a big paycheck and prestige) or doing good (as in never paying off your student debt) can be difficult. But they don’t have to be mutually exclusive—you can do both! Almost every firm, whether it’s BigLaw, boutique, or somewhere in between, encourages and promotes pro bono work. It is no secret that there is a shortage of public defenders and lawyers willing to take on cases for little or no money. By taking on a pro bono matter, you have the unique ability and opportunity to help fill that gap and ensure that access to justice isn’t denied. Many firms also have programs where associates can work for months with a non-profit or government entity to provide legal services while the firm handles paying the associate for the work. Without these programs, many people and organizations would suffer.
Types of Pro Bono Work
There is really no limit to what type of work you can do pro bono and lawyers don’t have to resign themselves to taking on cases that are in their practice area. Cases involving immigration, asylum, domestic violence and divorce, writs and criminal cases, contracts for non-profit entities, election law, veterans’ issues, children’s issues, and death row cases are just some of the examples of the cases available. Pro bono work allows a lawyer to branch out and explore other areas and types of law. If you like music, see if the local orchestra or performance group needs services like rental agreements or employment and vendor contracts. If you like helping the elderly, reach out to your local probate court about volunteering to represent elder clients in court or for document drafting like wills and power of attorney. There really is no obstacle to find what you are passionate about and find an organization to use your legal talents for the greater good.
Some lawyers will take on pro bono work during slow times of the year or when they are just starting out, but that doesn’t always mean the pro bono case or project will be resolved once regular assignments pick back up. Make sure you can balance both pro bono and regular work and that you have time for both. If your office has a pro bono coordinator or partner, communicate with them about any conflicts or issues that arise. Most firms recognize the benefit of pro bono work, and the majority give billable credit for such cases, so balancing the two should not be an issue.
There are a lot of benefits to taking on pro bono work—gaining skills, refreshing your outlook on your career, benefiting the greater community—the positives are endless. Whether you are a law student, a new attorney, or a seasoned professional, take some time out of your busy schedule and take on a pro bono matter; you won’t regret it!