Who among us did not dream of bettering our communities when we decided to enter law school? Nearly one-third of us considered going to law school and pursuing our dream of joining the legal profession as early as high school. Public-spirited motivations—opportunities to give back to society and impact social change—were among the top reasons for pursuing a legal education. (Before the JD: Undergraduate Views on Law School, Ass’n of Am. L. Schs. (last visited Apr. 28, 2023).)
Fortunately, many of us are living our dreams and impacting society in many ways by zealously representing our clients. If you are not living your dream or want to do more to additionally improve the lives of others, there are ample opportunities. Attorneys of all practice areas can provide meaningful assistance through public interest, pro bono, and reduced-fee activities.
The American Bar Association (ABA) urges all lawyers to provide a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono services annually. ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 (Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service) not only provides a way to give back to the community but also offers lawyers an opportunity for professional development by gaining experience in new areas of the law.
A good way to inquire about pro bono opportunities is to contact the volunteer lawyers project of your state or local bar. Through these programs, lawyers volunteer to assist people who otherwise would not be able to secure legal representation. Areas of practice might include adoption, bankruptcy, child support, civil rights, divorce, employment law, estate planning, public benefits, and real estate law. If your state or local bar does not have a volunteer lawyer project, start one.
Every state needs attorneys to accept indigent defense cases. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). The Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires states to provide attorneys to criminal defendants who are unable to afford their own representation. The promises of Gideon are in peril in most states largely because of a lack of adequate funding. Volunteering to accept an indigent defense case at your state’s “reasonable rate” is not only important to ensure constitutional guarantees but also a good way to gain valuable courtroom experience.
Do you have trial experience? How about coaching a local mock trial team? Mock trial programs are designed to introduce students to our legal system by providing a challenging academic competition. The program offers students an opportunity for personal growth and achievement, emphasizing the importance of research, presentation, and teamwork. In addition to teaching students about the legal system, mock trial programs encourage teachers and students to develop learning partnerships with professionals from the community. These linkages between the schools and the legal profession show students that the community is committed to their educational success.
Don’t think you can be a successful mock trial coach? Put those worries aside. Sixteen-year-old Iowa Mock Trial Champion John Semelroth of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, pulled together Iowa attorneys familiar with coaching mock trial teams and developed instructional videos demonstrating best practices. MockTrial101.com is a free online course that provides short video lessons on every important aspect of mock trial and is taught by Iowa lawyers with track records of winning as both mock trial competitors and coaches.
Ever thought about becoming a teacher? No better time than the present. Most school districts would welcome attorneys as guest speakers. Nearly all institutions of higher education—community colleges, universities, law schools, etc.—have openings for adjunct instructors. Go for it. Instructing others can be fulfilling and can force you to brush up on topics you may have long forgotten.
Lawyers Defending American Democracy (LDAD) is looking for lawyers interested in defending the rule of law in the face of an unprecedented threat to American democracy. Their work is not political or partisan. They unite members of the legal profession in enforcing and upholding principles of democracy and law, consistent with their obligations as lawyers; demanding accountability from lawyers and public officials; and calling out attacks on legal norms and prescribing redress. They advertise 14,000 coalition members and many ways for members to contribute.
Gain civil rights experience by volunteering with your local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Local NAACP Legal Redress Committee chapters recruit volunteer attorneys to assist members of the local community and partner with existing legal organizations to share resources to address legal redress matters. They also seek to implement professional and educational development initiatives for law students and new attorneys in the community.
Patent attorneys can take advantage of the opportunity to volunteer with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The Patent Pro Bono Program is a nationwide network of independently operated regional programs that match volunteer patent professionals with financially under-resourced inventors and small businesses for the purpose of securing patent protection. Registered patent practitioners are critical to the success of the Patent Pro Bono Program. Patent practitioners interested in volunteering their legal services may also be interested in the Patent Trial and Appeal Board Pro Bono Program or the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board Pro Bono Clearinghouse Program.
If you are a fan of the arts, remember that artists need lawyers, too. Your community is sure to have ample art organizations that would love your services. Moreover, check to see if your community has an organization like the Chicago-based Lawyers for the Creative Arts. If not, perhaps you could start a similar program. Lawyers for the Creative Arts provides free legal services to financially eligible clients in all areas of the arts—visual, literary, dance, music, theater, digital media, arts education, and much more. They help individuals and organizations with business issues, contracts, copyrights, trademarks, and many other legal issues. Their website states,
Most of our matters do not involve litigation, which is attractive to many transactional lawyers. The matters we refer are predominantly short-term time commitments. You will work with talented, interesting and creative clients, many of whom, with your help, will go on to successful careers. You will learn, or sharpen skills in the arts and entertainment areas. We also provide opportunities for volunteers to join boards of directors of arts organizations. Our volunteers enjoy and benefit from their work with us and, more importantly, enjoy the satisfaction of applying their legal skills to the advancement of arts and culture in their community.
These are just a few ideas for those interested in bettering their communities outside of running an efficient, successful, and profitable solo or small firm practice. There are many other avenues for engagement and empowerment. The ABA Center for Pro Bono is a good source of information on a whole host of exciting domestic and international volunteer opportunities.
Lawyers have skills possessed by no other profession. Our skills can better society. We only live once. Let’s be impactful. Let’s do all we can to improve our communities.