GIVING BACK: Pro Bono: What’s Your Excuse?

Vol. 29 No. 4

By

Melanie Kushnir is Pro Bono Project Director of Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. Parts of this article originally appeared in “Yes, A Small Law Firm Can Have a Pro Bono Program!” posted to the ABA Center for Pro Bono Exchange on March 2, 2011.

 

You have every excuse in the book. You may feel constrained by a lack of time, training, or an absence of malpractice insurance. But I’m here to tell you that you can do pro bono. All you need is an open mind and some creative thinking!

“I can’t do pro bono because I don’t have the time.” Pro bono work does not have to involve a huge time commitment. Many opportunities can be performed in short, discreet time blocks and do not require full-blown case representation. There are persons of limited means who only require a few hours of legal assistance.

In my home state, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and Nevada Legal Services provide low-income individuals brief consultations in 15- to 30-minute time blocks through several “Ask-A-Lawyer” programs. The time commitment required is limited to three hours. Pro bono opportunities are available during the day, evenings, and on selected Saturdays. They involve a number of substantive areas, including family law, foreclosure mediation, landlord-tenant, and bankruptcy.

Legal Aid Center also partners with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law on a Homeless Assistance Project that provides evening volunteer opportunities on a quarterly basis at a re-entry program for drug-addicted and homeless individuals and at a local church’s weekly meal program.

“I’m not trained in the areas of law where pro bono work is available.” Although a significant amount of pro bono legal services involve substantive areas that may not be customarily handled by your practice or may be outside your expertise, don’t be discouraged from branching into areas of the law where you may have an interest but not the experience. Many bar associations and/or pro bono programs provide free CLE training for attorneys willing to accept a case. In addition, these programs can generally match volunteer lawyers with a mentor.

Opportunities are available for transactional lawyers who don’t want to go to court. For example, Legal Aid Center and the Nevada Small Business Development Center co-sponsor a Small Business Project that provides assistance to owners of small businesses or those about to start a small business. Volunteers teach seminars and participate in an Ask-A-Lawyer program following the lecture.

Another attractive option for many lawyers is helping unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings through the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division’s partnership with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). Through this project, volunteers have access to numerous free CLE training videos, course materials, and podcasts that can be viewed at the attorney’s convenience.

“I can’t do pro bono because I don’t have malpractice insurance.” Some lawyers may be hesitant to take pro bono cases because they lack malpractice insurance. What many lawyers do not realize is that as long as they take a pro bono case through an organized pro bono program, they will be covered by the program’s malpractice insurance (see, for example, the Virginia Bar Association’s program.

“Pro bono will displace ‘real’ paying-client work.” This concern is likely to be raised whether in a small or large firm. Firms that have studied this issue, however, have concluded that not only does pro bono work not displace paying client work, but the busiest and most profitable attorneys in an office are the attorneys performing the most pro bono work. Additionally, pro bono projects can be used as a professional development tool by providing high-quality, skills-based training at a much lower cost than might otherwise be provided through paying client work. Finally, pro bono benefits the firm through increased marketing exposure, heightened visibility, and positive image building based on the good works being done in the community.

No excuses. Pro bono work is critical to addressing the gap between those who can afford counsel and those who cannot. Legal service organizations can only serve a small portion of the legal needs of low-income individuals.

So, stop making excuses and get busy! There are more clients in need of your services than you can possibly imagine.

 

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