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January 13, 2020 Pro Bono

Pro Bono Lessons Learned (For Free)!

By: Sarah Lahlou-Amine

Ever since my law school days when my views on what it meant to be a lawyer began taking shape, pro bono service has always been an important part of that picture. I’ve found a great source of meaning in my pro bono work, and that work has been key to my career satisfaction. My work volunteering, recruiting, and managing pro bono volunteers has taught me a lot, and I’d like to share some of those things in this post. 

I’ve learned that I’m really fortunate.  As lawyers, we are generally a pretty fortunate bunch. We’ve benefitted from an education, an opportunity to enter a noble profession, and experiences that make us stronger all the time. You’ll often hear lawyers say, “It’s good to be busy.” And it’s true. We’re lucky to have work. Not everyone has that good fortune. 

Through pro bono work, I’ve seen firsthand how hard it is for those without the means to hire a lawyer to get justice.  Even getting transportation to a hearing can be challenging enough to discourage people from getting the legal assistance they need, and repeatedly missing work to go to court might mean not paying rent. Once you get an inside look at the majority of cases in our court system, it’s easy to see how a lack of resources can translate into a lack of access to courts. We are officers of those courts, and it’s on us to identify the gaps where people need help, protections, and better systems. 

I’ve learned that funding legal aid programs is critical. I’ve been fortunate to work with many great organizations that do important work in their communities. Working with a legal aid organization or other nonprofit provides a unique opportunity to get to know the organization’s processes, resources, and how it manages to stretch those resources to maximize its reach. Pick an organization (or two) and write a check. There is no right or wrong amount, just contribute what you can. Those dollars will help your community in ways you alone simply can’t. 

If you’re in private practice, consider whether any events your firm or organization is putting together might present a good fundraising opportunity. Consider honoring a business partner with a legal aid donation. Starting a conversation about legal aid in new and sometimes unexpected contexts furthers the important goal of visibility. It also helps promote a business culture that recognizes service as valuable and important. That kind of culture is built one small step (and creative idea) at a time.

I’ve learned that effective programs serve lots of interests, and that this is a good thing. I remember how strange the business case for pro bono felt to me when I first started doing pro bono work. It seemed wrong to suggest that one should hope to gain anything from service. Wasn’t this supposed to be a selfless act? Well, not everything is about us, right? In the interest of building programs that serve more people, I learned to flip the script. Would I want people losing access to important volunteer resources based on preconceived notions about why we should engage in service? That doesn’t sound very selfless after all. Where this really became apparent to me was in working with bar organizations, law firms, and businesses. Designing effective bono programs that offer resources and opportunities to volunteers and their employers helps garner support from the top-down. The result is an opportunity to provide services and produce change on a much broader scale. Win-win.

I’ve learned that effective programs get what they need from volunteers without bogging them down. Pro bono programs ideally make it as easy as possible for a lawyer to get information about the program, obtain training if necessary, and start working. An online option for registration and management is ideal, and I’m a big fan of free, no-strings-attached trainings. Lawyers are some of the most cautious creatures you’ll ever meet. Let them see what your program is all about and take a free training (assuming this comes at no significant cost to the organization) before they’re asked to make a commitment. 

In terms of resources, consider letting volunteers form teams, making mentors available, and offering ways to involve volunteers’ staff and perhaps even their clients or business partners. A team-based approach, where appropriate, offers volunteers an opportunity to bounce ideas off each other, which can be helpful especially in an unfamiliar practice area. Also, members of a team may have different skills and strengths. Some might be more interested in drafting motions, some might prefer investigative work, and others might prefer to be in court. Figuring out how to best leverage volunteers’ abilities and interests makes programs more effective. It also enriches the experience of volunteers who will enjoy using their best skills to serve their community, all while building bonds with their colleagues.

In deciding what you need to ask of your volunteers, determine which volunteer contributions are most critical and try to help with as much of the other administrative aspects of the work as you can. If your program takes care of things like intake, financial screening, merits screening, and professional liability insurance, let your volunteers know that. You never know what might be holding a potential volunteer back from doing pro bono service. 

I’ve learned the importance of volunteer recognition. Pro Bono volunteers are a humble bunch. So, take it upon yourself to give them a shout-out! Recognition is another win-win. It’s a win for volunteers who feel acknowledged and appreciated and for their employers or organizations who get to share in the recognition for the great work their attorneys are doing. This often translates into more of that important top-down buy-in. It’s also a win for the pro bono program, which gets increased visibility in the process. Social media platforms offer opportunities to accomplish all of this at little cost. Getting the word out about your program, your work, and your volunteers into new networks through social media is a great way to attract more volunteers and others who may be interested in supporting your cause. 

I’ve learned that pro bono isn't always warm and fuzzy. Think about’re often jumping into circumstances that involve some of the most challenging times in people’s lives. This is where it’s important to remember your role—it’s a very special one. You are giving your client a voice he or she otherwise might not have in a situation or proceeding that likely has a big impact on his or her life. Understanding exactly what that impact is will help you advise on all available options and steer toward the resolution that your client truly wants and needs. 

I’ve talked with lawyers who have had a bad pro bono experience. It can be disheartening when you’ve dedicated your time to a pro bono case and your client is unhappy with the result. If this happens, it helps to remember your purpose—providing your client with an opportunity to exercise his or her rights and have the matter decided on the merits on a level playing field. I have seen clients of pro bono programs be just as grateful when they don’t get the outright win they were hoping for. But even when that’s not the case, understand that in your client’s world, there may be serious circumstances that overshadow your contribution, at least at that moment in time. And that’s ok. Help them address the results of the outcome, genuinely wish them the best, and be proud of your work. For those in volunteer management, be sure to express your appreciation to your volunteers in these circumstances and let them know that even in the face of a loss, their contribution provided access to justice and was incredibly valuable. 

I’ve learned that community is everything. Just about everything I’ve learned through pro bono work comes back to community. We give to make our community a better place for everyone. We engage our community to make important programs stronger and more effective. And we lean on our community for support—we all need it. The people I’ve met in my pro bono work, from clients to volunteers to program directors, have taught me so much. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that what helps our community helps us each individually because we are all connected to our community and each other.

I hope this post has made you consider how you might connect with a pro bono program to serve your community. Lost on where to start? Feel free to send me a message. I’ll be more than happy to help you make the connection. I’d also love to hear from others…what has pro bono service taught you? Do you have suggestions for those venturing into a new pro bono matter or putting together a pro bono program? Share your ideas! It might be your story that encourages someone who has been afraid to take on a pro bono case, or your tip that helps a nonprofit expand its reach to serve even more people. 

Happy volunteering!

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Sarah Lahlou-Amine

Shareholder, Banker Lopez Gassler

Sarah Lahlou-Amine is a Florida Bar board-certified appellate specialist. She is a Past Chair of the Appellate Practice Section of the Florida Bar and has been named in publications including Florida Super Lawyers, Florida Legal Elite, and The Best Lawyers in America. Sarah has garnered an AV® Preeminent distinction, the highest available mark for professional excellence from Martindale-Hubbell’s peer review ratings, and has been repeatedly recognized for her dedication to pro bono service. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys writing and visiting Florida farms with her children.