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Student Lawyer

Public Service

Putting the Pro into Pro Bono

Cheryl Rich Heisler

Putting the Pro into Pro Bono

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Simply put, we need more productive people to provide more help to more people.

If living through the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us nothing else, we’ve learned how interconnected we truly are. To borrow a line from Disneyland, “It’s a small world after all.”

As prospective lawyers, you have a unique set of professional strengths and proactive tendencies you can use to make a difference in others’ lives.

Assisting Through the Law

If you’re fortunate enough to be studying or clerking in an area of the law that’s in desperate need right now, devote some of your otherwise billable time to groups or individuals who can’t afford to hire counsel.

Your law school career services office and alumni departments—as well as any firm contacts you have—should be able to help you find lawyers with whom you can network to learn about organizations that are long in need and short on legal assistance.

Turn to professors you admire and ask them for ideas of how and where you can help. Aggressively review local publications to identify overburdened causes and target important names and contacts within those organizations.

It’s OK if you have more passion for an area than legal experience; you’ve already been exposed to the legal thinking process, and your role will be as part of a team, not as someone left to your own devices.

Assisting Outside the Law

Maybe the topics that touch your heart aren’t within the legal realm. That’s OK, too. We all have our “transferable” bag of tricks. Those are the parts of ourselves we use in everything we do, whether personal or professional, for work or for play.

If you tend to be an organizer, you can’t help but take a role that will keep others moving purposefully forward. A leader leads—members of any team are drawn to and follow your direction. Consensus builders are crucial in communicating and drawing members into the circle so that everyone can work toward common goals. All of these roles require able people who can successfully work through any crisis at hand.

You Get More Than You Give

Who can help? That’s easy. Each of us has something unique to offer. No matter your age or stage, there’s room for everyone who wants to pitch in.

While I encourage you to pinpoint causes or geographic regions that are most meaningful to you, keep your mind open, and be willing to help wherever the need arises. As ball players like to say in post-game interviews, “There’s no I in team.”

Helping make things better is like a boomerang. Whatever you end up giving cosmically comes back around to you. Maybe that doesn’t happen directly, but it never fails to amaze me when someone who worked on a pro bono project ends up close to another volunteer who has a friend in an organization that might need to hire a new attorney soon.

It also amazes me when a new skill set learned and developed doing pro bono work becomes an integral part of what a newly minted attorney can offer an employer upon graduation. Even if you use your experiences only as evidence that you did more than binge-watch Netflix during the quarantine, you’ll have a dynamic story to tell in future interviews.

What about Turning Pro?

Much is said about volunteering in the nonprofit world as a selfless side gig. But feel free to use your pro bono experience as a jumping-off point for a career in the nonprofit world.

Doing good for others can, and often does, feel really good for you as well. The practice of law is, at its core, a service profession. Since most of us chose law school at least in part for the opportunity to serve our communities, consider choosing to serve the underserved as your highest legal calling.