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June 12, 2015 Articles

The Importance of Paying It Back

By Tiffany D. Gehrke

As lawyers, we are uniquely equipped to help others. We not only have been trained to problem solve, but we also have been given special responsibility under the law that enables us to speak or act on behalf of others. We should not take this responsibility for granted. Pro bono work is essential to keeping our legal system flowing and to ensuring that legal services are not reserved only for the most affluent sector of society. Through pro bono work, we can hone our professional skills in addition to helping those in need.

Pro bono work enables you to expand both your comfort zone and the experiences from which you can draw. Those of us with a practice that primarily involves “business” matters do not often get to have the same types of experiences that a family law, personal injury, or criminal law attorney encounters. Volunteering that puts us in contact with people needing legal services is a wonderful way to enhance our communication skills. Learning to present complex legal jargon in a clear, understandable way is an essential skill for any good lawyer.

Pro bono work can also help us give back to our communities in ways that only a lawyer can. Volunteering as a guardian ad litem or serving as appointed counsel can help low income or in-need clients navigate the legal system. Volunteering outside of your expertise (with the supervision or support of another attorney, if needed, so as to not violate your duty of competency) can hone your analytical skills. Even if you are not an estate planning attorney, you can volunteer through the Wills for Heroes program and help first responders prepare wills and powers of attorney. That kind of pro bono work expands our horizons, sharpens our analytical skills, and helps those who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us.

Most of us recognize that as lawyers we have a professional duty to do pro bono legal work, because we have the privilege of practicing law. But that isn’t where it stops. We also owe a duty of service to our communities. We did not get to be lawyers by ourselves. Throughout our lives, we were aided, in ways both big and small, by numerous people. Maybe it was a teacher or coach who encouraged you along the way. Maybe it was a college professor who wrote a letter of recommendation. Maybe it was the neighbors who trusted you enough to give you your first job babysitting their kids. Maybe it was any one of the innumerable ways your family supported you. No matter how you ended up as a lawyer, you can point to others who contributed to your success along the way.

Our personal duty now is to pay it back to the community and encourage the next generation. As women lawyers in particular, we serve as role models to girls and young women. Girls in grade school and high school see us in our profession and take note. Just knowing a woman in a particular field encourages youth to consider certain career options. But that is not enough. We need to make ourselves accessible to others—from all walks of life—and to talk to and encourage them to explore professions that historically have been male-dominated. We need to show these young women that, just like the generations before us, we are working to make the future a better place for women, and we are fighting for equality in the legal field and beyond. We need to fight the negative stereotypes all too often associated with being a lawyer. We need to be positive role models. We need them to see the wonderful and exciting experiences that come with being a lawyer, in addition to all the hard work. We can do this by volunteering in our communities.

Not only do we help future generations when we volunteer, but we also help enhance our own skill set. We develop our listening skills and empathy. We see similarities in people from diverse backgrounds. For example, a few years ago I was volunteering as a tutor to help a Chicago Public High School student prepare for the ACT. She was the first in her family to consider college, and she had never met a lawyer. She only knew of “lawyers” from TV and through others who had been through the criminal justice system. Throughout our tutoring sessions, she learned not just some helpful mnemonic devices to help with the ACT, but also that there are many other ways to be a lawyer beyond what she had seen on TV. I learned from her during our tutoring sessions, too. I learned to listen, to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and to look for ways to problem solve—all skills that help in both personal and professional settings.

As lawyers, we must continue to serve our communities and work together for equality and access to justice. As they say, to whom much is given, much is expected. Go out there and make our profession proud. In honor and appreciation of those who helped each of us get to where we are today, we should pay it back to the community and help those who are following in our footsteps.

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, pro bono, community service, volunteering, access to justice

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