GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2005
Qui Bono from Pro Bono?
Introducing pro bono work into your practice can have a profound effect on your legal career. By helping resolve a legal issue for a client in need, you can rediscover the sense of meaning and professional fulfillment that drew you to law school in the first place. Pro bono service also can provide practical benefits—without forcing you to radically alter your practice.
As a lawyer, I feel compelled to begin this article with a disclaimer. I am not a senior attorney with years of pro bono experience and numerous accolades for my work with the less fortunate. I am a young lawyer, just beginning to develop the pro bono aspect of my practice. Ironically, it is my inexperience that uniquely qualifies me to write this article. Like you, I was skeptical about how I could fit pro bono work into a demanding schedule. I believe that this article will not only convince you to reinvent your practice through pro bono work, but will also provide some basic tips on how to get started.
What Is Pro Bono Work?
Pro bono work is often thought of as free legal services for the less fortunate. While this perception may generally be true, there are many different types of pro bono opportunities. My own pro bono experience, for example, has involved a different type of client. As chair of the Cleveland Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts Committee (VLA), I have facilitated the representation of highly educated, business-oriented, and unfortunately often “starving” artists. A featured program of the Cleveland Bar Association’s “Our Commitment to Our Community” initiative, the VLA’s pro bono program was developed to provide a variety of legal services and legal education programs to local artists of all disciplines, as well as to nonprofit arts organizations.
Why Get Involved?
Lawyers are notoriously busy. Indeed, many lawyers are so overloaded that they barely have time to service the needs of their own clients, let alone provide pro bono services outside the office. Nevertheless, as most volunteers will tell you, pro bono service is such a rewarding experience that it is worth making time for it in your busy practice. There are also numerous practical benefits.
Experience. Pro bono work allows young litigators to go where they may never have gone before—the courtroom. Maybe you think that being a litigator only involves answering discovery or preparing motions, but taking on a pro bono case often introduces you to the ever-elusive courtroom. Whether you are acting as guardian ad litem or appearing in municipal court on behalf of an indigent client, there is no substitute for standing up in court and making your case. Pro bono work offers courtroom experience in a professional environment where, as a practical matter, very few cases go to trial.
These opportunities are not limited to litigators. VLA’s pro bono program, for example, is often in need of business lawyers. Our volunteer lawyers are often called on to answer questions relating to choice of business entity, copyright, nonprofit status, and even tax law. This program promises to be a great opportunity for business lawyers to gain experience with different substantive areas of the law and to prepare different types of legal documents.
Connections. Admittedly, a volunteer will likely not sign up for pro bono work with the intention of making important connections. Nonetheless, my work with VLA has introduced me to countless interesting and talented people, both in and out of the profession. On a regular basis I work with other lawyers, community leaders, politicians, professors, students, and artists who all share a common interest—a love of the arts. By working with other professionals on a cause that we all feel strongly about, I have been able to develop professional relationships—not simply “connections.” Connections are made at cocktail parties, and in my experience, are not usually fruitful. My work with VLA, on the other hand, has fostered genuine friendships. While I have no expectation that these relationships will directly lead to more business, I have found myself turning to individuals I met through VLA with issues in my own practice.
Moreover, as a young lawyer introducing myself to the Cleveland legal community, and specifically the Cleveland Bar Association, I have found VLA to be a great vehicle for meeting the membership. My time spent on VLA matters has introduced me to lawyers of all ages, disciplines, and sectors of both private practice and public service. These relationships are not limited to my work with the VLA and will stay with me as my professional career develops.
Personal interaction. As a business litigator, my clients are generally corporations. In this role I have the pleasure of forging good working relationships with the professionals who work in-house with these clients, yet it is different than personally representing an individual. By contrast, my clients in the pro bono context are most often individuals. In all likelihood they are experiencing the legal system for the first time, and they are looking for someone to guide them through the legal process—not just resolve their legal issues. Moreover, a case that a firm would usually consider small may be overwhelming to a pro bono client. In the arts context, I have found that a seemingly small case can actually be a threat to an artist’s very livelihood. My colleagues and I have found it to be a rewarding experience to work directly with pro bono clients on issues that will have a profound effect on their lives.
How Do I Get Involved?
Most lawyers would likely agree that volunteering professional time for pro bono service should be an important part of any lawyer’s practice. As with all great ideas, however, transforming good intentions into actual service can be difficult. As lawyers, we immediately think of all the logistical issues that may arise with pro bono service. For example, if you are a government lawyer, how do you get malpractice insurance? Can a corporate lawyer provide legal advice on landlord/tenant issues? And at the most basic level, where do you find a pro bono case? These are important questions, but you will find that many of the programs that interest you have already resolved them.
Again, speaking from my own experience devising VLA’s pro bono program, our committee had several meetings with the staff of the bar association to analyze issues such as obtaining volunteer insurance so that government lawyers can represent pro bono clients. VLA also prescreens and approves each potential client for pro bono service so that the volunteers are not burdened with administrative details. Pro bono programs will often even assist the volunteer with analyzing substantive areas of the law by providing written materials and onsite coordinators that mentor the volunteers and offer assistance when needed. There are dedicated professionals who have spent their careers doing pro bono work, and they have considered and resolved many of your concerns.
Contact your local bar association. An easy way to find out about pro bono opportunities is through your local bar association. Professional organizations are always looking for willing and capable people to take an active role.
I began my pro bono program search with the Cleveland Bar Association’s Justice for All Committee, which deals with pro bono service and programs. After attending only one meeting, I was aware of all the different pro bono services offered through the Cleveland Bar Association. In fact, I found so many programs of interest that I spent several months attending meetings before deciding which programs I thought best fit my interests and abilities.
Support your interests and use your talents. Identify your interests and strengths and apply them to your pro bono service. A particular pro bono opportunity may interest you because it is based in your community, it involves your church, or it supports a cause that you feel strongly about (in my case, the arts). Whatever the reason, identify an area of interest. I think you will be surprised at the pro bono opportunities that exist.
Once you have identified a good fit, think of how you can best utilize your strengths in participating in that pro bono program. If you are a good writer, consider preparing pamphlets that might be distributed at a brief advice clinic. If you are good at resolving disputes, consider being a mediator in a program to curb school truancy. Whatever your strengths, there is a pro bono program that can put them to good use.
Get involved, not burned out. Take the time to plan your pro bono work—and be realistic about your caseload, areas of interest, and the number of programs you want to get involved with. Otherwise, you will run the risk of spreading yourself too thin. At that point, your volunteer work competes with your practice and you end up regretting your involvement with pro bono service. Instead, focus your attention and ease into your service. Carefully evaluate whether a particular program fits your time constraints, interests, and expertise.
Reinventing your practice may be as simple as incorporating pro bono service. Without dramatically altering your chosen field of law, you may discover an untapped wealth of fulfilling—and important—legal work that helps those who need it.
Karl A. Bekeny is an associate with Tucker Ellis & West, LLP, in Cleveland, Ohio, and is chair of the Cleveland Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.