GPSolo Magazine - October/November 2005
Pro Bono: Why Bother?
Sometimes you wonder what people think. Like the editors of this magazine. Here I am, a partner in one of the world’s largest law firms. (In fact, I am that rare species of lawyer these days—I have been with the same firm for all of my 25 years as a lawyer.) Yet, a few months ago, I received a call from one of the people who help put this publication together, asking me to write an article on why lawyers should do pro bono work. What could a megafirm trial lawyer have to say to thousands of lawyers in small firms and solo practice? I don’t pretend to have the slightest clue about how you run your practice or balance the demands of your career, your family, and the other things that are important in your lives.
So what were they thinking? Part of the reason that they asked me to write about pro bono may be that this year, I served as president of the Cleveland Bar Association. We initiated a number of programs at the Cleveland Bar aimed at getting lawyers more involved in pro bono and public service. And we had some success. For example, through a program called “Our Commitment to Our Community,” more than 2,000 lawyers pledged to devote a total of 70,000 hours to pro bono and public service programs.
In meetings with numerous law firm managers and lawyers, I heard all kinds of reactions to my “pitch” to get lawyers involved in our community. To make our programs work, it was my job to deal with these reactions and get Cleveland lawyers to ante up. My guess is that the editors of this publication think that I can do the same with you. This article is not for those who already do pro bono; it is directed to those who haven’t yet gotten involved.
First, what exactly do I mean by pro bono? I could give you a very legalistic definition, but because I want you to read the rest of this piece, let’s spare the jargon. By pro bono, I mean legal services provided for free (or at a substantially reduced rate) to the poor or to nonprofit organizations that serve the community’s disadvantaged.
So how can I get you to consider doing pro bono? I could appeal to your sense of guilt. But unless you were raised by my mother, I doubt that would work (in fact, now that I’ve passed my 50th birthday, that generally doesn’t work with me anymore, either). Most us who read the legal press know about the great unmet need out there. In Ohio, for example, only one out of five low-income people who need legal help get it. The statistics in other states are not too different. So if you’re not doing pro bono work already, my violin playing won’t likely move you.
I could also tell you about how it is your professional obligation to do pro bono. If you’re in a Code state, I could tell you to look at EC 1-1. If you’re in a Model Rule state, I could tell you to look up Rule 6.1. But these rules are aspirational. It’s all too goody-goody. Real lawyers don’t react well to goody-goody—it’s like being told to eat your vegetables.
Many “pro bono” professionals talk about motivating lawyers by using the “business case” for pro bono. That works for some lawyers, especially big-firm lawyers. Active pro bono programs help law firm business in at least four ways. First, such programs help recruit lawyers. One of the questions most asked of law firms by law students is about pro bono. Second, pro bono opportunities help build skills in young lawyers. In these days of the “vanishing trial,” giving young people first-chair opportunities is a “win-win-win” situation (for the firm, for the lawyer, and for the client in need). Third, doing pro bono—especially if it involves assistance to civic or charitable organizations—can help build networks. Building networks means more opportunities for potential referrals and for business. Fourth, doing pro bono may provide recognition. Most legal aid organizations and bar associations give some type of awards or listing for lawyers involved in their pro bono programs. It isn’t a bad thing to be recognized as someone who does good things.
For some of you, however, the “business case” may be irrelevant. You don’t recruit. Your young people get plenty of action. You’re involved in enough organizations, thank you. Being “recognized” doesn’t turn your engine. In fact, you’d prefer not to be recognized at all, especially because a number of your clients are trying to turn your cases into pro bono work anyway.
I have found that the best way to get lawyers to consider doing pro bono—and to get them to actually take a pro bono matter—is to convey not what it will do for their bottom line or their reputation, but how it will make them feel. Talk to any lawyer who does pro bono work, and you will hear nothing but positive things about the experience. Time and time again, lawyers who do pro bono keep doing pro bono. Why?
When I try to explain the feeling lawyers experience when doing pro bono, the most apt analogy I can use is Christmas morning. I’m Jewish, married to a Catholic. We celebrate Christmas. I don’t think that I’ve ever experienced quite the feelings as I did while watching my daughters come downstairs when they were young to “see what Santa brought.” The unbridled glee in their faces and voices touched me deeply. It was the joy of giving. Giving feels good, and sometimes it feels very good.
Doing pro bono connects us to people. We make the law and the justice system work for people who have nothing to give us but their gratitude. We empower them. We give them hope; we help them when they have nowhere else to turn. It makes us feel like a lawyer. It makes us feel that our training, our experience, and our judgment can do some good. It makes us feel that we are better people. And we are.
When you do pro bono, everybody wins. Our communities are served by the most talented of its citizens. Our needy get the help that they require. And the concrete examples of lawyers doing good can counter the public’s negative impression of lawyers.
Many lawyers tell me that they believe what I say about pro bono, but they can’t find the time or don’t have the expertise to help. My response is to tell them that there are many opportunities that involve discrete time commitments and don’t require a lot of expertise. For example, in Cleveland, the Legal Aid Society and the Bar Association established a series of Brief Advice and Referral Clinics. These require four to five hours on one Saturday every four to six months. The lawyers are given manuals and other materials to help out the clients they see. We also have “mentors” (lawyers with substantive expertise) standing by. In addition, there is a program to provide legal service to the homeless at various homeless shelters around town. This, too, involves only a few hours after the close of the business day or on a Saturday two to four times a year. Less than a day’s training is needed to get lawyers up to speed.
These are but two examples in one city. My guess is that a call to your bar association or local legal services agency would reveal a varied menu of programs. These organizations know that, to make pro bono work, they have to make it as easy as possible for lawyers to participate.
One of the biggest barriers preventing lawyers from doing pro bono can be summarized in one word: inertia. You haven’t done it. You don’t know how to do it. And you won’t make the effort to learn.
But here’s the funny thing. If you’ve taken the time to read this article, you have the time to start the process of volunteering. Take out your phone book or your bar directory and look up the bar association or the legal services agency in your town. Or find their websites. All that remains between you and being a pro bono lawyer is a phone call or an e-mail. How hard is that?
As we approach the new year, it will be the time for resolutions. You resolve to lose weight. You resolve to stop a bad habit. You resolve to be better spouses, parents, and children. You resolve to “get organized.” This year, resolve to take a serious look at getting involved in pro bono activities in your community. If you keep it, it’s a resolution you will never regret.
David A. Kutik is a partner in the Cleveland, Ohio, office of Jones Day, specializing in complex litigation. He was president of the Cleveland Bar Association in 2004-2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.