Helping Others Helps You

Volume 38 Number 4

By

About the Author

Martha “Frannie” Reilly is an attorney with the nonprofit organizations practice at Fox Rothschild LLP, based out of the firm’s Philadelphia office.

Law Practice Magazine | July/August 2012 | The Law Firm Profitability IssueAS AN ATTORNEY WHO PRIMARILY represents nonprofit organizations, I have discovered that my pro bono work has enhanced my ability to work with my current clients and attract paying clients.

As with any entity, the better organized a nonprofit corporation, the smoother it will run and the easier it can focus on its mission. Regretfully, because of the recent economic downturn, more and more nonprofits lack enough resources to hire lawyers and must rely on volunteer attorneys to handle their legal work. Sometimes working with pro bono clients leads to the development of paying clients. But even when it does not, it provides you with a level of personal and professional satisfaction that cannot be quantified.

The skills that I used to help and attract nonprofit clients have been enhanced by the work I do for Philadelphia VIP, an organization that matches pro bono nonprofits with willing volunteers such as myself.  I have used the skills and knowledge gleaned from helping Philadelphia VIP to assist other organizations, both paying and non-paying, to avoid the problems that would result if they had no legal guidance.

The work I have done for Philadelphia VIP clients has helped me understand the issues that all nonprofits face and enabled me to provide sound solutions for these problems. For example, since 2004, I have represented the Sunshine Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that fulfills the dreams of chronically ill, seriously ill, and physically challenged and abused children aged 3 to 18.

In my role as its lawyer, I have worked with the board and management of the foundation to develop a board manual, create materials for chapters and ensure good corporate governance practices. These efforts have allowed the foundation to run more effectively and to focus on its mission of making children’s dreams come true. 

In most states, lawyers are encouraged to perform pro bono work and in some states, it is even required. The ABA has weighed in on the importance of pro bono work: ABA Model Rule 6.1 states that “every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”

GETTING STARTED

My approach to pro bono work is to find assignments that interest me and that allow me to work on projects I am passionate about. That is more satisfying than doing pro bono work for its own sake. When I talk about my pro bono work with other attorneys, I often come to realize that they, too, find a great deal of satisfaction in their pro bono efforts. 

When I first started working with Philadelphia VIP, I was a first-year associate. Each month, I would receive a list of available pro bono cases. I did corporate work for my firm and found that many of the pro bono jobs were more litigation-oriented. 

Because I was not a litigator, I was excited when Philadelphia VIP started a new program—Philadelphia LawWorks, which was designed to contribute to Philadelphia’s economic development by ensuring that homeowners, nonprofits and small business owners’ legal needs are met by educating clients and the community to prevent legal problems. I took my first case and was immediately hooked, working with clients interested in starting nonprofit tax-exempt organizations to help others. 

While working with these clients, I learned about the issues facing individuals starting nonprofits, such as compliance with IRS rules and regulations. That work greatly appealed to me, and since then I have focused my practice and my pro bono activities on nonprofit organizations, both local and national. I now regularly counsel individuals looking to form a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. I believe this experience has allowed me to work more efficiently and effectively when meeting with new and potential clients. 

In addition to working with LawWorks clients, I have mentored other attorneys at my firm, as well as lawyers at other firms who also volunteer with LawWorks. This has allowed me to expand my list of contacts and referral sources.

Both the experience and knowledge I have gained has proven invaluable. I have been able to build a client base in a practice area I thoroughly enjoy, and have had many opportunities to work with interesting and dedicated people. My clients are passionate about the great work they are doing, and I enjoy learning more about this work while helping them with legal issues.

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