The demands of being a lawyer, especially a small firm or solo lawyer, can leave little room for anything else, let alone pro bono work. I know. Not only am I the immediate past president of the Ohio State Bar Association, a former Chair of the GPSolo Division, and chair of numerous committees of these bar associations, but I’ve also served on and been president or chair of several boards in my community, raised two daughters, and been married 33 years, all while maintaining a busy law practice in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. I can’t tell you how many times peers have asked me, “How do you do all of this?”
Many articles have been written about how to make time for pro bono. The ABA and perhaps your state and local bar associations have resources on this topic. I will not cite the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct concerning pro bono work or the oath you took when you became an attorney. Instead of repeating prior articles and reminding you of our professional obligations, in this article I’ll share some of my personal experience, colleague to colleague, in the hope that my experience helps you to make time for pro bono work in your busy schedule.
I will admit that when I was a young lawyer, pro bono work was far from top of mind. I was just trying to figure it all out and work hard to get established and advance in my firm. As I look back on it, I never had a formal plan to engage in pro bono, and it wasn’t until a few years after I began practicing law that opportunities started presenting themselves. By way of background, during my 36-plus-year career, I’ve focused my practice in the areas of estate planning, probate, trust administration, corporate law, and real estate, and it is in these areas where a lot of the pro bono service I provided occurred.
How I Got Started
I love to play golf. That is something else I do when I have time. Early in my career, along with a group of friends, my wife and I became members of a country club. After being a member of the club for a couple years, I was solicited by the president of the club to become a board member. I was told up front that the club needed a lawyer on the board to help with issues that arise from time to time and to update the rules, regulations, bylaws, and the like, as they had not been updated in decades. I was asked if I would be willing to update these documents pro bono (a country club is a nonprofit 501(c)(7) organization). This was an exciting opportunity for me as I not only love to golf, but the services I was being asked to provide were in one of my practice areas. Additionally, it was a great opportunity to meet and get to know other club members and business leaders in the community serving on the board.
A few years later, my wife and I had two daughters. Both became pretty good soccer players in the school district where we resided, and it wasn’t long before I was asked to coach my daughters’ teams. I had never played soccer before, but the association (a 501 organization that had about a thousand players ranging from preschool to high school age) sent me for training and to be licensed as a soccer coach. Most years my teams, which included my daughters, did pretty well and advanced far in the state playoffs, which led to my being solicited by the president of the association to become a board member, and later I was voted president of this board. The circumstances were similar. This organization was in need of a lawyer to deal with issues that arose occasionally and update its corporate documents. Soccer became a great way to spend quality time with my daughters, serve my community, and become known throughout the school district we lived in.
As I mentioned, I am also an estate planning attorney. Through the years, one of my firm’s clients made millions in charitable contributions to a local organization. From time to time, I was asked by this client to review documents related to how the gifts would be used by the organization. The board of this organization had high-ranking employees of Fortune 500 companies, business owners and leaders in Cincinnati, and members of the community. I was later asked to serve on this board and filled the role of addressing legal questions that arose occasionally.
Later, some of my estate planning clients and trust officers of trust companies in the community asked me to get involved in various associations in which they were involved, playing a similar role as I had with other organizations, which allowed me to volunteer my professional time while serving the entire Cincinnati community.
How I Made Time
Looking back, although I did not have a plan to engage in pro bono work, my pro bono service became part of my day-to-day activities with family, friends, and work as a lawyer. I was going to golf, coach soccer for my daughters, and work as a lawyer even if I never became a board member of these associations and organizations. Thus, the pro bono service I provided never felt like work, and I never felt like I had to make time for it because it was a natural extension of the day-to-day activities I would have done anyway. Further, because most boards have term limits, I was able to fulfill my various terms of service during different time frames and not all at the same time.
Now, you might think that I’ve been lucky, and the service I provided didn’t take all that much time. However, each organization had issues that occasionally came up requiring litigation. There were employment issues related to employee termination, claims for overtime pay, issues related to club membership and discrimination, contract review, account collections, workers’ compensation claims, and review and negotiation of contracts, among other issues.
Benefits of Pro Bono
Pro bono service is an incredibly important part of our profession. Millions of citizens struggle with access to justice (access to attorneys) every year. Personally, I have enjoyed pro bono service tremendously. Aside from the professional obligations we all have for providing pro bono and the personal joy of feeling good for doing it, through pro bono service I have made friends, met people, and developed acquaintances, all of which have provided me a level of work-life balance. In addition, service has enabled my law practice to grow, as many I served with grew to respect me and retain me as their attorney. Although new clients were not my reason for engaging in pro bono, networking and marketing are a natural benefit of service. I hesitate to think where my practice would be today if I had not engaged in pro bono service. Would I have written a thousand or so wills and trusts, been the attorney for a number of companies based in Cincinnati (some of which are pretty large companies), or become Chair of GPSolo or president of the Ohio State Bar Association? Would my children, who are now adults and engaged in community service, be service-oriented if I had not been while raising them? The ripple effect from pro bono service is incredible. Pro bono service benefits so many people in your community, including yourself.
So, I ask, how can you afford not to make time to provide pro bono service? You will feel better for providing pro bono service, feel pride in your accomplishments, and develop a network of new friends. It will enhance your law practice, your kids just may take after you, and it will provide you with work-life balance. While there is often more than one way to get things done, what has worked for me, and what might work for you, is to find what you enjoy doing from day to day, look for pro bono opportunities that correspond to your practice area or skill set, and incorporate pro bono service into your day-to-day routine. You’ll be so glad you did it!