February 17, 2016 Dialogue

Running a “Delightful” Pro Bono Program

By Margaret Benson

The ultimate goal of legal services programs, staff, and pro bono is the delivery of high-quality legal services to the client. However, a well-run pro bono program also has to ensure that its volunteers have what they need to deliver those services. Volunteers choose to work with programs that make it possible for them to provide expert, free legal services to low income clients. When they feel good about their work and recognize its value and the value of the organization, the potential benefits to the program and the clients are nearly endless.

Pro bono program staff need to remember who they are serving in their pro bono program—not just clients, but volunteers, too. You can’t help one without the other. Programs create a delightful experience for their volunteers by focusing on the fundamentals: staffing, screening, training, and support. While it may seem daunting at first, a delightful pro bono program will grow as fulfilled volunteers continue to take cases and encourage colleagues to join them. Expanding program capacity to help more low income clients is a program’s ultimate goal.

Staffing

This is the single most important component of any pro bono program. Staffing includes attorneys and other professionals, such as coordinators, paralegals, or administrators. Some pro bono programs, operating within or as an offshoot of a large staffed-based legal services program, are run by non-attorney pro bono professionals. Experienced pro bono professionals can run great programs, but—for reasons explained below—every program also needs the time of at least one qualified staff attorney.

Pro bono staff should have a strong base of legal knowledge and friendly, outgoing personalities. Staff who inherently enjoy teaching and working with people will help a pro bono program thrive.

Some programs have talented, friendly pro bono professionals who rely on legal aid staff attorneys for support. However, working with volunteers of varying skill levels can be challenging and requires a great deal of patience. The last thing many staff attorneys—who are often swamped with crushing caseloads—want to do is use precious time to navigate simple legal strategies with novice volunteer attorneys. Successful pro bono programs include friendly and accessible staff attorneys who will be delighted to hear from volunteers . . . again and again.

Training

Volunteers require training on both a large and small scale. On a large scale, programs need to have and maintain up-to-date training materials for specific areas of law. On a small scale, knowledgeable staff attorneys must be available to answer questions and help guide the work of the volunteer attorneys. Written and video materials cannot take the place of an attorney’s experience and insight. Volunteer attorneys fighting to make billable hours do not want to hear, “It’s in the materials,” when asking for help on a pro bono case.

Not only should training be available for the specific types of cases a volunteer will encounter, but it also needs to include issues that volunteers do not face in their daily practice. Legal aid attorneys have experience dealing with clients’ tangential problems. Attorneys who work in the private sector, however, do not always understand the stresses that many low-income clients are under and can be frustrated when those stresses impact their legal issues.

Volunteers also need to be aware of—but not controlled by—the impact of their clients’ socio-economic and cultural differences. For instance, some clients may be reluctant to share personal information or may resent probing questions. Cases that involve emotionally challenging issues can make an untrained or unprepared volunteer feel uncomfortable and avoid hard questions. Volunteers must understand that clients need and deserve objective counsel and representation, not sympathy.

Screening

Effective screening procedures are essential for matching cases with volunteers. Although even the most intensive screening will not always guarantee perfection (a simple default divorce case can turn into a huge battle with domestic violence issues), screening by knowledgeable and experienced staff can usually prevent problems. Case complexity and anticipated challenges should be clearly articulated to volunteers, as they deserve to know—to the best of anyone’s ability—what they are getting into before they agree to take a case.

Support & Security

Volunteers differ greatly in their experience levels and needs. Some are able to take a case and proceed with little assistance, but a lot of volunteers want or need some hand holding—and that’s ok, especially when they are new. The goal is to have volunteers grow with the program; to gain experience and confidence in their pro bono work. In fact, the ability to retain volunteers is a hallmark of a delightful pro bono program and brings significant benefits to your organization.

Some volunteers also need administrative support. Attorneys working in BigLaw usually receive administrative help from their firms, but solo and small firm practitioners, corporate, and government attorneys do not have docketing or assistants at their beck and call. If volunteers are struggling with billable hours or other work commitments, they may not have the bandwidth for mundane case-related or clerical details. Staff should offer to handle these tasks whenever possible. Some volunteers may need office space with access to computers and telephones. Programs should also have available research capacity, reception services, and pro bono litigation support when possible. Finally, volunteers should never be expected to go out-of-pocket on pro bono cases.

Support for volunteers must be readily available and real, not illusory. That means staff or mentors are responsive when a volunteer asks for help. It is counterproductive to promise support if volunteers cannot reach staff or mentors quickly and without difficulty. Attorneys need to feel competent in their pro bono work, even in an unfamiliar area of law. One bad experience can drive an attorney away from pro bono for good. It is the job of program staff to make sure that does not happen.

Delightful programs also offer security to their volunteers. These programs accept final responsibility for their cases and take back any cases a volunteer cannot complete, for whatever reason. Program staff may decide to keep the case in-house, find another volunteer to handle it, or—depending on the nature of the problem—terminate the attorney-client relationship and withdraw from the case. But, following President Truman’s credo: “The buck stops here,” and they take care of the problem.

Finally, staff in delightful programs thank their volunteers and recognize their efforts. While awards are great, “micro-recognitions” are easy and valuable. Be enthusiastic when you see or speak to your volunteers. Remember their names. Ask about their children or their jobs. Treat them as friends, not work. Highlight successes, even small ones. Be visibly and expressively grateful for their work and the time they give you and your clients.  

What’s the point?

You might wonder, “Why bother working so hard to bring in private attorneys? Why not cut out the middle man and simply let staff attorneys—people who know and care about what they are doing—provide free legal services? What makes a delightful pro bono program worth the extra time and effort?”

While each legal services program needs to answer that question for itself, most now recognize that, in addition to expanding capacity, pro bono helps the private bar see and address the inequality of access to justice. All too often, courtrooms that serve primarily low income people remain outside of the view of most attorneys. As a result, most attorneys are not aware of those problems: the inequities and the lack of available resources. Pro bono attorneys see it for themselves and help. Thanks to pro bono, the private bar becomes part of the solution, and that is delightful.

Margaret Benson

Executive Director, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services

Margaret C. Benson is the Executive Director of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, a 51-year-old pro bono legal services organization with more than 2,000 active volunteer attorneys. She regularly speaks on pro bono issues and writes a bi-monthly column on pro bono for the Chicago Lawyer.