chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
July 01, 2013

Considering Pro Bono?

Kari Deming

In the world of senior and poverty legal services, where need is chronically high and resources are chronically and critically low, the promise of pro bono support and assistance is enticing. However, every benefit carries a cost. Balancing the costs and benefits of pro bono is a key challenge for legal services managers and requires consideration of several factors. Specifically, the nature of the program, the types of pro bono projects contemplated, and the resource-expenditure versus value-received are all critical assessment points.

The first factor for assessment when considering pro bono work is the type of program hosting the project. That is, the opportunities for pro bono contribution vary between full-services programs, senior or poverty hotlines, and specialty projects, such as foreclosure prevention, pension assistance, or benefits screening and application. In a full-services program, pro bono attorneys often offer client representation, clinical support, community legal education, and systemic advocacy assistance, while law student and non-attorney volunteers support in-house staff and fulfill other programming needs. Hotlines have traditionally used pro bono attorneys to provide telephone advice and brief services, develop subject-matter resources in their areas of expertise, and train staff, while volunteers, again, offer in-house support. Specialty projects offer an especially good fit for pro bono—often retired—attorneys to utilize and maintain their substantive skills while giving back to the community.

The second assessment factor is the desired type of pro bono project. The most obvious analysis identifies an unmet need (e.g., too many calls to the hotline to manage) and designs a project to address that need (e.g., recruiting pro bono attorneys to work the phones). The more common analysis involves conceiving of projects that might appeal to pro bono attorneys (e.g., staffing a desk at a Law Day event or drafting simple wills) and then drumming up clients to ensure that the pro bono attorney feels his volunteer time has been well-spent. The cost-benefit consideration is clearly different in these methodologies, with one weighing towards client services and the other towards funder and bar requirements. Programs and their client communities typically benefit most from long-term pro bono commitments such as complex litigation or weekly hotline shifts, while outside attorneys are more likely to volunteer for short-term, less time-consuming events such as a monthly advice clinic or the preparation of simple planning documents.

Finally—and flowing naturally from the short-term vs. long-term commitment issue—is the balance of resources expended versus benefits received. Cost factors include, but are not limited to, conceiving and planning the pro bono project, determining and then recruiting the class of target volunteers, interviewing, assessing and hiring, and training, supporting, supervising and recognizing those volunteers. Benefits include expanded program exposure, enhanced and/or expanded client services, and satisfaction of funder requirements.

Here are a few personal and highly subjective thoughts on this cost-benefit analysis, developed over 15 years of hotline management:

  • Volunteers can be a blessing or a curse. Often, they consume more resources than they offer in productivity.
  • Volunteers should never be taken on just because they are there and willing. Careful vetting, including resume and writing sample review, an in-depth interview, and methodical reference checks, is a necessity.
  • To truly bring value to a hotline team, volunteers should be treated in the same manner as staff. In my office, this means that they must make a one-year commitment to the program, attend initial and ongoing trainings and staff meetings, work regularly scheduled shifts, calendar days/times they won’t be in as scheduled, timely respond to supervising attorney feedback, draft and submit “good stories,” etc. It also means that they are quickly conversant in virtually every area of civil law, occasionally frustrated by clients but overwhelmingly glad to make a positive difference every day, allowed to wear whatever they’d like (our formal dress code is anything but a speedo...), subject to management-by-chocolate, and very poorly paid.
  • Volunteers who are not willing or able to commit to the above requirements are best used, if at all, tackling carefully defined, time-limited projects such as resource development, staff training, or investigation and resolution of assigned complex cases.
  • Volunteers who are unreliable or underperforming should be let go ASAP. 
  • Volunteers should be appreciated and praised, but no more than staff. Doing so is time-and energy-consuming and breeds discontent among staff. Instead, treat everyone in the office well—manage consistently, maintain high-quality technology, truly care, loudly celebrate good work, bring treats, give awards (I do several per staff meeting—drafted on my computer and printed on plain paper), and so on.
  • Law students are often better volunteers than attorneys, who may have more complicated lives, are no longer desperate to learn the actual practice of law, and are sometimes resistant to supervision. However, the training investment is often greater with students who come in Kermit-green. To mitigate this, we only hire interns/externs/credit/work-study students who commit to more than one semester of work.
  • Further, law students should not be used to provide initial case assessment or legal service—their lack of knowledge and experience can too easily lead to incomplete fact gathering, incorrect issue spotting, and improper client advice. They are, however, excellent for handling follow-up—client contact, ghostwriting, negotiations with opposing parties or attorneys, etc—under the close supervision of an attorney.
  • It is more cost-effective to train a group of volunteers at once than to train them individually. It is also more efficient to establish a well-defined, easily-recycled volunteer program than to create a work plan for every individual volunteer. ■

Kari Deming

About the Author: Kari Deming directs Lakeshore Legal Aid’s Counsel & Advocacy Law Line and consults with the Center for Elder Rights Advocacy. She holds a Juris Doctorate and Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Interpersonal Communication.