We all went to law school to help people. My lawyer friends and colleagues consistently tell me that some of the most fulfilling work they have done as lawyers has been pro bono work. My first pro bono case was helping a woman with Alzheimer’s disease get much-needed benefits after the death of her husband. It sounded easy enough, but litigation was necessary and very messy. She couldn’t thank me directly, but knowing that she would have the resources to be cared for in her last days has been a great source of personal pride throughout my career.
When assessing a law firm before joining it, lawyers and staff may not focus on the firm’s pro bono policy, but pro bono activities sure help to keep them there. Each time my law firm wins a “best place to work” competition, the survey respondents cite participation in pro bono as one reason why our firm is a great place to work. Yes, everyone in our firm gets to participate in our pro bono program. Here’s how we do it. Feel free to copy liberally.
It’s important to have a policy that expressly includes staff. It’s equally important that the firm culture support the policy. Our lawyers in management do a great job of emphasizing that the firm supports and encourages pro bono. One way our culture supports the policy is to provide credit for staff members, lawyers and paralegals whose performance is judged on productivity. Our pro bono policy grants some credit hours annually for paralegals because they have billable hour requirements, too. We also have paid community service hours for staff, so they can take “time off” to devote to pro bono activities. This applies to all staff, not just those who get billable hour credit.
Obviously, staff can be involved in pro bono in the same way they support paying clients. Secretaries and paralegals are needed for both. Unfortunately, some firms discourage attorneys from using support staff in the same manner on pro bono files as they do for paying clients. We find that morale for our attorneys and staff is best when we use the services of support staff for pro bono matters as well as paying ones.
One way that we have successfully engaged staff in a more hands-on role is through providing intake services for the pro bono entities with which we partner. The Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s Cancer and ALS Legal Initiative is a good example. Staff members devote a few hours once a week to calling prospective pro bono clients to conduct intake interviews. They obtain qualifying financial information, ask standard interview questions to learn what the person’s legal concerns are and then follow up on responses. An attorney reviews the information obtained and can also follow up with the client if needed. This gives staff members an opportunity for one-on-one contact with the people in need. A similar program is being launched in Birmingham, Ala., where our staff will be handling overflow intake calls for the Birmingham Volunteer Lawyers Program.
Some of our staff members in Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., volunteer at monthly clinics for the homeless. They perform similar intake functions but do so face to face with the homeless clients rather than on the phone, and they also help with administrative needs at the clinic, such as making copies of important documents, checking online court records, etc.
Staff members in Birmingham have enjoyed volunteering at Project Homeless Connect, an annual event at which we coordinate the legal services volunteers. Staff members act as “guides” for the homeless attendees, taking them around the event to the various services they need to access. Other staff members assist at Legal Services with administrative needs.
Staff members who are fluent in other languages can help with translation. Our Houston office recently signed up to handle cases with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which provides pro bono representation to unaccompanied children in the immigration system. These children often don’t speak English, so having translators available is critical. We have some Spanish speakers in our offices who help with translating documents, brochures and website material for the volunteer lawyers program and with translation at clinics.
Our IT staff created what is fast becoming a national online pro bono platform, Online Tennessee Justice (onlineTNjustice.org). This is a web portal that allows low-income residents to sign up, qualify for pro bono services and then post their legal questions for volunteer attorneys. The volunteers can log in, choose legal issues they feel qualified to help with and then provide advice to the clients. It has been such a tremendous success that we are offering free licensing to access to justice commissions in other states.
Besides bar association programs and lawyers’ nonprofit favorites, staff members also can be a good source for pro bono opportunities. They may be involved in charitable organizations that need legal services or they may identify individual clients in need of help. Allowing staff members to suggest a project makes it more personal and fulfilling.
Involving staff in pro bono is great for morale. They feel good about the important service they are providing to the clients, and it also contributes to a feeling that they are valued and integral members of the team. It’s important to also include them in recognition. If you involve staff in pro bono, you will win awards. When you do, bring staff members to the awards presentations. Have your own awards ceremony in the office, too. Recognize the leaders in pro bono, lawyers and staff.
One last important tip: Assign a partner to lead your pro bono effort. Lisa Borden, my law partner, does a fantastic job. She reminds me of an orchestra leader bringing so many different talents and interests together to do great things for those who need it most. You can call or email her to ask for help, but you can’t have her—she’s ours!