Why pro bono? ABA’s Model Rule 6.1 states 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 (50) hours of pro bono public legal services per year…” But pro bono work can also give young attorneys experiences they may have to wait several years for, such as the opportunity to work with more senior attorneys within their firm but outside of their practice group. Developing new skills, learning new areas of the law, and working with new attorneys will only help younger associates develop their practice.
I am fortunate enough to work at a firm that is supportive of pro bono work and allows me to use a substantial number of hours towards my yearly billable hour expectation—a growing trend, particularly in Big Law. Below are some general pointers I’ve picked up along the way that anyone considering doing pro bono work for the first time should be aware of.
- Pick a cause, organization, or work that you feel passionately about or at least have some affinity towards. Everyone is busy, and it can be difficult to make time for pro bono work. Caring strongly about what you’re doing will help on those days when you need to stay late to handle your billable and pro bono work competently.
- Don’t be scared to try something different. It may be difficult to find pro bono work in your particular practice area; this shouldn’t prevent you from taking on a pro bono matter. There are resources out there that can help. Non-profit legal aid services often put on clinics teaching how to handle common legal issues that lower income people face. Similarly, staff attorneys at legal aid providers can be extremely helpful. I have reached out on multiple occasions to such attorneys, and they have always been willing to lend me their ear and point me in the right direction.
- Make sure you have the appropriate time and resources available to you prior to taking on a pro bono matter. You owe the same ethical obligations to a pro bono client as you owe a large institutional client. In my experience, the best time to take on a pro bono matter is right after settling a big case when there is a lull in my hours.
- Set your client’s expectations and scope of work clearly, early on, and in writing. I once made the mistake of taking a non-emergency, late phone call from a pro bono client. From that day on, the client continued to call me at all hours of the day (and night).
- Ask your colleagues for help. If you work at a firm like mine, your colleagues will have the same pro bono requirements. Pro bono work is a good opportunity to split work with colleagues so nobody is overwhelmed.
Pro bono work can be extremely rewarding. One of the most memorable moments in my legal career was talking to a pro bono client after resolving his matter successfully. He was very thankful, emotional, and extremely appreciative, and I similarly was very appreciative of him entrusting me to handle a case that impacted his entire family. We remain friends. But pro bono work can also present challenges. What you may have expected to be a short matter may turn into a year-long ordeal. It can be difficult to balance pro bono work with an already busy schedule, but I encourage every young associate to take on a pro bono case. If you decide to do so, considering the pointers above will help.
Richard Tabura is an associate at Greenberg Traurig in Los Angeles, California.