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July 31, 2014 Articles

How Junior Associates Can Make Working for Free Pay Dividends

There are many noble as well as practical reasons why an attorney may engage in pro bono work.

By Nikaela Jacko Redd

Pro bono service allows individuals who otherwise cannot afford legal services the opportunity to have them free of charge. Many attorneys engage in this service because they want to give back to the community or because they are encouraged to do so by their state bar or by an employer. The American Bar Association’s Model Rule 6.1 provides that “[e]very lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least fifty (50) hours of pro bono public legal services per year.” The requirements vary by state. For example, New Jersey’s Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 provides that “[e]very lawyer has a professional responsibility to render public interest legal service.” New Jersey’s State Bar Association Pro Bono Task Force, however, has proposed rules aimed at providing more services to indigent clients. See “New Court Rules and Amendments Proposed re: Pro Bono Practice of Law,” N.J. L.J., Mar. 12, 2014. New York has taken the idea of pro bono service even further, as it is the first state to adopt a pro bono requirement for new bar members, in which each candidate must complete at least 50 hours of qualifying pro bono work before applying for admission to practice.

Pro bono service provides a direct and immediate impact to those populations that may need it. Given the current economic atmosphere, there are more individuals that fit into the category of needing pro bono legal service. This phenomenon is due in part to shrinking government budgets, resulting in a decrease of funding to the courts, nonprofit organizations, and legal-aid societies. For example, in May 2013, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Court reported that budgetary cuts to courts in that state have been more profound than to any other institution in Illinois.

In some cases, a pro bono attorney’s help may signify the difference between life and death, prison and freedom, or bail or no bail. Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court unanimously found in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963),that the Sixth Amendment guarantees to every individual the right to an attorney in the defense of a felony charge. But because of budget cuts, many public defenders’ offices lack essential resources. Some argue that the principles imbued in this seminal case have been subsumed in the economic decline of state governments and have fallen victim to politics.

Consequently, pro bono service is extremely important because attorneys do not have to become a part of a socioeconomic, political, or philosophical debate; rather, attorneys can pull up their sleeves and select what segment of the population they would like to provide assistance to and potentially effectuate change for. Involvement in pro bono services by private practitioners supports financially and operationally strained court systems, nonprofit organizations, law-school clinic programs, and legal-aid services.

Benefits to Junior Attorneys
Pro bono work provides junior attorneys the opportunity to learn hands-on and gain practical skills earlier than they may otherwise do in private practice. A junior attorney in private practice will be able to build case-management skills because the attorney can schedule and attend client and mediation meetings, and court hearings. Further, he or she will be able to fully interact with the client, adversaries, and court personnel. Some pro bono cases involve hearings that encompass direct and cross examinations or argument before a judge. Thus, junior attorneys should take advantage of every opportunity in which they are able to interact with others, because these relationships can be developed, may be beneficial in the future, and can form part of the junior attorney’s professional network. To maximize the benefit of the pro bono experience, junior attorneys should adequately prepare for the representation, which might include reviewing the court rules and the applicable statutory or case law, seeking advice from experienced attorneys in that area, or partnering with a legal-service organization to receive hands-on training. Moreover, the experience gained from pro bono work can give confidence to the junior attorney as well as transferable skills that can be used to seek assignments in addition to pro bono work.

Getting Started
Pro bono cases in most instances may be referred by an acquaintance, a legal-services organization, or nonprofit organization. It is important to make and confirm a conflicts check prior to initiating contact with the client, even if it appears that a conflict would be extremely unlikely. Once that formality is resolved, an engagement letter should be sent to the client. It is always a good idea to make sure that the client’s address and telephone number have been updated between the time the attorney has first received the file and the time the attorney would like to make contact. The attorney should refer to his or her jurisdiction’s Rules of Professional Conduct concerning engagement letters and ensure that the letter falls within the guidelines prescribed. If the attorney decides to use his or her law firm’s standard engagement letter, he or she should read the letter carefully to ensure that it applies to the file. If the attorney’s firm does not have a standard letter, it is a good idea for the attorney to research who at the firm might have had a similar case and ask to review that attorney’s engagement letter to provide a good starting point. Among other subject matters, the letter should at least include the scope of representation and request that the client contact the attorney to schedule an in-person meeting. The attorney should follow up with the client by phone or email, if more than a week passes without hearing from the client. In certain situations, such as domestic-violence cases, it might be advisable for the attorney to contact the referral organization or individual that provided the information, rather than call the potential client’s home where his or her aggressor may still be residing.

Handling the Matter
Junior attorneys should never make the fatal mistake of not seeking help or at least oversight of their pro bono cases. Pro bono work provides junior attorneys the ability to practice in different areas of the law in which they are interested but may not have much experience. Consequently, it is incumbent upon the junior attorney to enlist a practitioner in that field who will provide guidance or review the attorney’s work. Many law firms have a pro bono coordinator or committee that can be a tremendous resource. Often, most firms receive pro bono cases through organizations that vet each case and provide assistance or training to volunteer attorneys. It is important that junior attorneys establish a point of contact with a representative from these organizations and give regular updates on their cases. Ultimately, pro bono attorneys should ensure that their conduct falls within the boundaries of the law and Rules of Professional Conduct.

During the first client meeting, the attorney should review the entire engagement letter with the client prior to signing the document. The attorney should explain legal concepts to the client such as confidentiality, the attorney’s role, the client’s role, and the potential outcomes of the case based on the attorney’s legal analysis. The client should also be advised that a more experienced practitioner will be assisting to provide quality service, but that the junior attorney is the client’s advocate and should be the attorney that the client consults concerning his or her representation.

An attorney might be an attorney first, but there are instances where it is appropriate to provide critical non-legal information to the client. For example, in domestic-violence cases, a victim may recant or be reluctant to go forward. In this instance, the counseling side of being an attorney is important because the attorney must arm his or her client with not only the legal facts but also non-legal facts such as the mechanics of the power-and-control cycle in domestic-violence relationships or resources to call if he or she decides to pursue the case at a later time. Similarly, in the case of a wrongful withholding of a security deposit in which an indigent tenant is sympathetic to the landlord because of a past gesture of goodwill, counsel must explain the tenant’s rights and the landlord’s duties so that the client is apprised of the law and can make an informed decision about the case. It is important for a pro bono attorney not only to be empathetic but also to explain the boundaries of the law in a way that can be understood by the client. In many instances, the experience gained by a pro bono attorney is a life lesson in which the attorney is reminded of the many struggles that people endure when their rights are violated or when they are trying to defend their rights.

Closing the Matter
Once the attorney has successfully accomplished what was set forth in the engagement letter, he or she must send a closing letter to the client. The letter should clearly explain why the attorney’s representation of the client has ended. It might be worthwhile to have the client come into the attorney’s office or call the client and explain that the attorney’s services have been terminated and that a closing letter is forthcoming. Otherwise, the client might return to that attorney with an expectation that the attorney will represent him or her in a pro bono capacity when another legal issue occurs.

Pro bono work is satisfying, rewarding, and at times difficult, but it serves a greater purpose and helps to promote the greatest aspect of our profession: the ability to use the law to effectuate change. It is especially helpful for junior associates in private practice because it gives them the opportunity to gain more experience and develop legal skills, and teaches important life lessons. In the end, working for free pays dividends to the pro bono attorney as well as to the clients and to society.

Keywords: litigation, access to justice, pro bono, young lawyer, Model Rules

Nikaela Jacko Redd is an associate at Gibbons P.C. in Newark, New Jersey.

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