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October 01, 2016 Dialogue

Inspiring a Lifelong Commitment to Pro Bono

By Michael G. Bergmann

Legal aid attorneys across the country work tirelessly, day after day, to serve low-income and underrepresented individuals and families in need of legal services. But the need outpaces the availability of these critical services, which is where pro bono attorneys come in:  by volunteering their time and unique expertise, pro bono attorneys can help fill in the gaps, and their impact for their legal aid clients can be life-changing.

It’s no surprise, then, that recruiting pro bono attorneys is one of our most important tasks. The best way to do this is to start early, getting new lawyers and law students involved in the delivery of legal services so they can understand the legal needs of the poor and see how they, as lawyers, can make a difference. The organization I work for, the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI), is committed to doing just that:  getting young lawyers connected to service in a way that stays with them throughout their careers, resulting in a lifelong commitment to public interest law and pro bono service, and a lifetime of helping make the world a better place.

PILI was founded in 1977 with a special focus on law students. Our founders wanted the next generation of leaders in the legal profession to be aware of the public interest sector and to see a side of the legal profession they might not otherwise have a chance to see. To do this, PILI committed to providing funding to legal aid programs to hire law students to work for them as interns. At the time, the idea of providing external funding specifically for public interest work was very new and innovative. Even today, law students who want to gain experience in public interest law are often hard-pressed to find paid work that covers their basic living expenses without requiring them to take out additional loans. Starting in the 1970s and continuing through today, PILI Internships provide law students with invaluable legal experience while also helping the agencies where they work serve more clients. Since hiring its first 12 interns in 1977, PILI has continued to expand the internship program. PILI now funds over 50 law student interns every year who come from across the country to work in all areas of public interest law at Illinois legal aid organizations.

A few years after PILI’s Law Student Internship Program launched, PILI’s founders saw another opportunity to get new lawyers connected to service. This time, their focus was on the scores of incoming associates joining major law firms. The idea was to have them work at a public interest law organization between graduation and joining their firm, inspiring them to be the next generation of pro bono attorneys while also providing them with practical experience and the opportunity to help those in need. Big law firms jumped at the chance for their new associates to gain concrete legal skills while building meaningful connections in the public interest law sector, and incoming associates loved the idea of breaking up their bar study time by putting their legal skills to use for the greater good. Out of this, PILI’s Graduate Fellowship Program was created. In recent years we’ve had about 80 new attorneys annually—sponsored by over a dozen major firms—provide thousands of hours of legal services to low-income and underrepresented people in Illinois.

This focus on law students and young lawyers has been well placed. Many of us went to law school with the idea that we wanted to do something good; to use the law to help others. However, under the stress of classes and exams, and overwhelmed by daunting student loans and a challenging job market, many young lawyers struggle to follow through on their original intentions to make pro bono a priority. Incorporating pro bono into your practice early helps to ensure that it remains a part of your practice throughout your career.

What law students and young lawyers need is a strong network of peers and colleagues who understand the importance of service and the value it can bring. Such a network can provide support, mentors and role models, education, and specific opportunities for making pro bono work for you from the beginning.

This is a big part of the value PILI brings to former interns and fellows:  a dependable network of like-minded attorneys who understand the struggle as well as the desire to prioritize pro bono. With nearly 4,000 former Interns and Fellows over our almost 40-year history, PILI’s Alumni Network spans the profession and the country—from firm and corporate attorneys, to members of the government sector and the judiciary, to members of the higher education and public interest law sectors.

PILI's Alumni Network offers a range of educational, networking, service, and leadership opportunities, like our monthly Community Legal Clinic at Legal Prep Charter Academies in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood, one of the city’s more disadvantaged communities. We also offer regular pro bono and public interest law-focused continuing legal education programs, and we engage alumni as mentors for current classes of PILI interns and fellows. Through these efforts, PILI’s thousands of alumni can stay connected to each other in order to strengthen their individual commitment to public interest law and pro bono service.

You don’t have to be an alumni of PILI’s Internship and Fellowship Programs to get connected to your own network of young pro bono attorneys. Other young lawyer groups around the country, such as the ABA Young Lawyers, have an incredible commitment to public service, and many legal aid organizations have young professionals’ boards that specifically seek to engage new attorneys looking to build their public interest networks.

At PILI, we envision a legal community with a deeply-rooted culture of service, with law students, lawyers, and legal professionals engaged in public interest law or pro bono work and committed to addressing the unmet legal needs of the poor and underrepresented. By engaging law students and young lawyers in service early in their legal careers and keeping them connected to each other and to the public interest law community through a strong network, we are laying the important groundwork to make this vision a reality.

Michael G. Bergmann

Executive Director, Public Interest Law Initiative

Michael G. Bergmann is the Executive Director of the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI). He has spent his entire legal career as a public interest lawyer. Michael is also a past chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division and the ABA Judicial Division.