She comes in shaking, holding the tiny hand of a little blond cherub whose eyes are broadcasting sorrow. “I don’t have any money,” she shudders, “I can give you my wedding ring to sell, if that helps. Anything, I just need help keeping my kids.”
Most lawyers who practice any kind of law for families or individuals have been approached by clients begging for pro bono representation. It’s difficult to turn away people that you know need your help but whose problems are so big they can sink your practice if you allow them to consume you. Despite public perception of lawyers, many of us also have soft hearts in addition to huge student loan debts, and it’s easy to get caught in the trap of taking the wrong kind of pro bono/public interest work. Doing good isn’t just taking cases for free, though. Community service in diverse forms can help develop a positive brand identity for your firm in your community, can give your employees increased commitment to the work they do, and can fulfill you personally and professionally. Here are some ways to build a community-service orientation in your firm and create all these positive outcomes and more:
- Formulate a program for pro bono with rules, forms, and procedures. One of my rules for pro bono is that I only take one pro bono case at a time. When that one is done, I move on to another. That way, I do not lose more potentially billable time than I can handle. I also have a process through which pro bono clients must be vetted to determine that they really are at a financially pro bono level (not low bono, or able but unwilling to pay).
- Infuse your company values plan with the idea of community service. My employees know our business values, and I ask them to develop personal plans to fulfill them. Evaluation of our values is contained within their employee review discussions. I encourage employees to take ownership of pro bono and community-service projects.
- Put your money where your mouth is. My employees have work requirements for which they are paid, but I also offer annual bonuses that are based in part on community-service hours. In this way, I compensate them for what they give away. In order to qualify for these bonuses, employees are required to provide log sheets of hours they have devoted to community service. This includes pro bono work they do in our office, community-service projects that are office wide, and things they choose to do on their own.
- Put your money where your heart is. Select one to three causes you believe in that you will commit time and money to each year as a business. I participate in a fund raiser for our local Big Brothers Big Sisters as a committee member and sponsor. The event is great fun, with local restaurants providing tasting portions of their food and a live and silent auction. As part of their holiday gift, employees and their significant others were given tickets to this event, and we all went as a group. This provided a social outlet as well as support of an important cause. Sponsoring such events not only promotes your firm and creates goodwill as part of your brand, but also can be tax deductible for advertising purposes.
- Make community service easy and, when possible, fun. Providing easy opportunities for community service enables your employees and you to get the joy of giving without the pain of over-commitment. Some easy solutions include participating in local blood drives, going as a group to help raise funds for a particular event such as a telethon for a public radio station, money-raising walks or bowling parties, purchasing tickets for charitable events that your employees help to put together, or dedicating space in your office for a food or toy drive in conjunction with other charities such as the Salvation Army. Be open to ideas your employees may have for projects as well.
- Don’t ask your employees to contribute money. If they want to, they can, of course, but there should never be pressure for anyone to contribute financially to any cause—that can be exhausting to employees. Instead, provide opportunities for them to contribute time, and when they do, make sure you compensate them in some way, even if it’s not a cash bonus. For example, if someone contributes several off hours to a charitable event on a Thursday night, how about letting them come in at noon on Friday? Or leave early? If you can build in non-cash rewards for community service, it reinforces to employees that you are serious about your commitment to them and to the community.
- Put your name all over it. Whatever you do, make sure everyone knows that The Law Offices of You is behind it. Your employee is doing the breast cancer walk? They aren’t just Jane Smith, they are Jane Smith, Paralegal at The Law Offices of You. In this way, you build your brand and increase the positive association of your organization with the community.
- Tell your network what you are doing. Through social media, your e-mail or print newsletter, and even just verbally to your contacts, let people know the things you are participating in and the achievements of your employees in customer service areas. This is an important way to create buzz not only about charities you care about but also about your business and its commitment to service values.
- Make a plan and follow it. As with anything else in your business, you should be making a plan each quarter for how you intend to spend your community-service time and money. Don’t leave it up to chance, or you will wind up spending more time and money than you can afford.