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March 15, 2014 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair...

By Mary K. Ryan, Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

Take "No" out of "Pro Bono"

Girl Scout Cookies! Have I got your attention? Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin recently offered a wonderful insight, arising from one of our favorite commercial transactions: buying a box of Girl Scout Cookies. Godin focused on the sales technique. Instead of a Scout pitching a long, pre–fashioned sales spiel learned by rote, she should simply ask a prospective buyer: "What's your favorite kind of Girl Scout cookie?"

Godin explains: "In less than ten words, all the Proustian memories of previous cookie experiences are summoned up. In one simple question, the power in the transaction shifts, with the Scout going from supplicant to valued supplier. (And that's the universal lesson here: A question that avoids a 'no,' a question that starts a conversation, a question that opens the door to emotion ... those are the questions that build careers and create value.)"

This is a universal lesson, and it's well applied when we are recruiting new pro bono volunteers – or, perhaps more crassly, "selling" cases. The context of course is different. Pro bono cases, as all of us who've tried to recruit volunteers know, are not all cookies. But the point of engaging new volunteers is not just to get a case referred. It is just as much about engaging a new customer by catering to her wants and ensuring that she will be able to derive satisfaction and fulfillment from the experience. We want our volunteers to be repeat customers, after all. So, especially with potential volunteers, we should be starting a dialogue about pro bono's value – to client and volunteer – rather than asking, point blank: "Will you take this case?"

How can we do this? Here are four lines of questioning, each of which could be seen as steps in the process of recruiting (and keeping!) a new volunteer:

  • Areas of pro bono focus. What issues, or client communities, light the spark in a potential volunteer to perform pro bono work? What exposure to those issues or clients do they think pro bono work could bring?
    • This line of questioning will let you explore with your potential volunteer, in some depth, what enjoyable pro bono work s/he may have done in the past, what new area s/he may wish to learn about, and what parts of pro bono service will stir the passion for providing zealous advocacy in pursuit of a just and moral end.

  • Support structure. What kinds of support structures or training would make your potential volunteer feel empowered to serve clients?
    • This question will allow you to gauge your potential volunteer's comfort level with taking a pro bono case, and to flag potential barriers that could stop her from volunteering. The question will also allow you to highlight for her the array of support mechanisms that may exist inside and outside of her law office. Her knowledge of this available support can knock down the potential barriers.

  • Outcomes. What professional development would a volunteer like to realize as an outcome of their work? What personal development would a volunteer like to realize as an outcome?
    • It is not wrong for a volunteer to benefit from their service, both in terms of developing skills and (of course) feeling personal fulfillment. This line of questioning can allow you to explore professional and personal growth possibilities. Ideally it will give you a chance to show the volunteer that those two forms of growth can be closely related.

  • Coming back for more. What would be the benefits of building up expertise in working on pro bono cases or with certain client communities?
    • This question will allow you to reinforce with your volunteer that working on a pro bono case not only empowers a client, but it empowers the volunteer to build upon their good work by doing more. Or by teaching a colleague to do it. Or by considering policy–level solutions in the underlying area of law. Or by learning an area of law (landlord–tenant, for example) in which paying clients have needs too. And so on. The benefits of helping a new volunteer to grow are manifold. And you can plant the seed for that growth right at the outset.

Notice that not one of these questions allows a conversation–stopping "no" answer. And that's the goal. Meg Benson, executive director of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, learned this lesson in a kind of roundabout way – as the answerer of a question rather than the asker: "I attended a training for women attorneys by Chicago's famed Second City improv troupe. They taught us that, in improv and in life, you should always answer 'yes, but' instead of 'no' when you don't like a suggestion. The word 'no' stops the discussion. This is the same concept when the tables are turned and you're making the ask: avoid getting a flat 'no' by beginning a discussion." 

Begin a discussion that allows your prospective volunteer to think through, with you, how and why they can become a successful pro bono advocate who derives the utmost professional and personal fulfillment from their work. And when you sit down to have this conversation, it may not hurt to have some Thin Mints on hand.