Any lawyer who watches the news, reads a newspaper, or surfs the web is aware of the difficulties currently facing the economy. This time lawyers are not immune; many young commercial litigators are sitting at their desks with time on their hands. With the constant drumbeat of gloom permeating the news cycle these days, perhaps these associates could be forgiven if their first instinct is to spend the work day updating their status on Facebook or trolling the various blogs to learn how many more law firms laid off associates. But I would suggest there is a better alternative—taking on pro bono matters to gain valuable experience and hone skills for the future while riding out this economic downturn. Daphne Eviatar, “Pro Bono Picks Up in Down Times,” AmLaw Daily, Dec. 15, 2008.
Now, why should any young litigator listen to this advice? A fair question. One obvious answer is that taking on pro bono matters provides young litigators with the opportunity to do some good in the world—an important initiative in its own right, especially in these challenging times. Beyond that, though, there are important benefits to be had that are generally not available to young litigators through traditional work in law firms of any significant size.
The strategy of using pro bono work to develop and perfect one’s craft as a litigator was established over a century ago by a young litigator named Louis Brandeis. Young Louis, who appears to have been one of the first lawyers to incorporate public service systematically into the private practice of law, cut his legal teeth on a wide array of pro bono matters. Melvin I. Urofsky, “Louis D. Brandeis: Advocate Before and On the Bench,” 30 J. Sup. Ct. Hist. 31, 34 (2005). While it is difficult to dispute that he did some great work for his clients, it is also difficult to dispute that the work ultimately did as much good for his own professional development. So active was he in taking on and relentlessly pursuing matters for public interest clients that people eventually dubbed him “the People’s Lawyer.” Most of us now know him better, not as Louis, the junior litigator, but as the person he ultimately became through perfecting his craft: Justice Louis Brandeis, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
My own experience, albeit more limited, has also been influenced by the value of pro bono work in perfecting one’s craft. While Justice Brandeis focused on trial work, my own expertise lies in appellate matters. I work in the appeals group of one of the world’s largest law firms. But I was not always as experienced as I am today. Fortunately for me as a young lawyer, I was routinely encouraged by senior lawyers to always have at least one active pro bono matter, even when the economy was humming along. Pro bono is a large part of how I have developed my appellate skills over the years.
Both Justice Brandeis’s work and my own more limited experience, then, suggest that pro bono work is not only good for the soul, but it can also be good for the career. In particular, three things about pro bono work stand out: (1) pro bono work can provide early opportunities for substantial and meaningful direct interaction with clients; (2) it often offers young litigators the opportunity to develop skills through experiences that simply would not be available to them from paying work; and (3) it can provide experience in a far wider range of subject matters than the standard commercial litigation fare.