Giving Back Through Pro Bono Advocacy Is a Win-Win for All Law Students

Marni Lennon, Esq. - April 26, 2017

Giving Back Through Pro Bono Advocacy Is a Win-Win for All Law Students

When you’re a 2L, the world opens up with choices about classes, clinics, externships and exploring the type of lawyer you wish to become. This exciting year is also pivotal for developing lawyering skills while making a difference in the lives of others through pro bono advocacy.

It happened—you did it!  The 1L year fades into memory as the 2L year approaches, offering a menu of opportunities in and out of the classroom. There is so much to choose from: leadership in student organizations, law review, moot court, externships, clinics, pro bono projects, and more. The schedule is your own and you are back in the driver’s seat. While this is exciting, it can also be overwhelming as you try to navigate through this next phase of law school. Some have loaded the classes to prepare for the bar exam, while others have fled the casebooks to dive into the world of skill-building through clinics, workshops, and litigation skills training programs. What unites you, however, is that you are moving closer to becoming an attorney. As attorneys-to-be, you undoubtedly have come to appreciate that becoming an attorney is a privilege and, with that privilege, comes with a responsibility to give back. 

“Giving back” may conjure up different imagery for each of us, yet the commitment we have as lawyers is to appreciate that lack of access to justice for marginalized individuals and communities is a barrier to equal access for all. As lawyers, we understand that our obligation, as a component of being a part of this esteemed profession, is to do what we can to ensure that cases are not decided by zip code, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or any other variables outside of the merits of the case. Look around you. Notice the inequities in our communities. Look at the way in which information is power and those who lack access to information and to attorneys lack voices in our complex legal system. Lawyers, and law students, have an opportunity, and an obligation, to do what we can to promote equal access to the law through pro bono advocacy.

For some of you, the notion of giving back through pro bono and public service is almost intuitive—it is at the core of the motivation for the study of law. Many students who embrace the pro bono ethic have had experiences that made them aware of the inequities inherent in our legal system. For others, openness to pro bono and public service exists, but a road map to get there is unclear. And for others, the notion of pro bono is a new concept and does not cleanly fit with the goals that led them to the pursuit of legal education. All students find themselves somewhere on this continuum. Our challenge—our responsibility—as legal educators is to ensure that all graduates embrace a pro bono ethic as lawyers. This also means that we, as educators, are committed to helping you find opportunities to give back.

What’s In It for Me?

Pro bono work is a win-win for law students. Truly! You grow as a lawyer-to-be while helping others through your efforts. While this may seem contrary to the pro bono ethic, consider the opportunity to develop your skills and gain confidence in your capacity to advocate others while working to deliver assistance, empowerment, and justice to a client, community, or cause. In doing so, you will greatly enhance your understanding of the legal system, its strengths, and its pitfalls, while at the same time learning about yourself as a lawyer. These experiences will help you understand the best fit for your career.  In addition, you will distinguish yourself in the job market. Employers are interested in who you are, what you have achieved in law school, and what skills you bring to their organization or firm. Pro bono is one of the most effective ways to develop your lawyering skills.

All of this sounds good because it is—after all, the term pro bono is Latin for “for the public good.”

Getting Started with Pro Bono Opportunities

What skill sets do I want to cultivate? Think about the skill sets you hope to cultivate. Do you need more research and writing experience? Are you eager to develop client counseling skills? Are you comfortable with speaking in public? Have you had negotiation experience? Do you have specialized language skills? Think about your past work experiences—legal and non-legal—what skills do you currently possess and which ones do you need to cultivate? This is a great opportunity to work on the areas you may shy away from rather than continuing to work on what you already know. For example, if you have worked in customer service in retail, it is likely that you are more comfortable speaking in public. Perhaps now is the time to work on research and writing. 

What causes, communities, and practice areas am I most interested in? Make a list of your areas of interest. Are you concerned about the environment? Do you have an interest in protecting the rights of children? Advocating for the homeless? Have you just heard a news story and feel moved to get involved? Connecting personally to the causes and issues you are working on enhances the likelihood that you will truly make a difference, and every client, every cause, and every community deserves your best efforts. Don’t be afraid to experiment and gain experience in new areas—you’ll be amazed at how interconnected the skills are.

How do I find opportunities? Attend public interest presentations on campus. Seek out opportunities through student organizations including student chapters of the ACLU, National Lawyers Guild, Public Interest Law Groups, Phi Alpha Delta and more. Identify community organizations dedicated to access to justice. Contact your local bar association and ask about pro bono projects. Join the American Bar Association—it is free for law students—and find out about the many pro bono initiatives across the ABA’s many sections. Research local nonprofit agencies and ongoing pro bono projects. Volunteer for your local legal services/legal aid agencies. Many offer on-site clinics to assist walk-in clients, and helping hands are always needed as these organizations face budget cuts in the face of increasing needs by clients. Just remember to always work under the supervision of an attorney.

Ask your school’s career development office, dean of students, and public interest resource center for information on engaging in pro bono. Connect with faculty who are working on public interest issues and ask for introductions to agencies and lawyers in your community. Find peers who have engaged in pro bono and ask about their experiences. Connect with lawyers who have committed themselves to public interest law and those who have been recognized for their pro bono leadership and learn about the issues they have worked to address. Your career advisors should be able to help you identify leading local firms engaged in pro bono and assist you with identifying public interest agencies. See if your school has a pro bono legal research project; it can help by linking students to organizations for specialized projects. Apply to be a part of a legal aid alternative break. Connect with law school clinicians to see if you can volunteer and support their work.

Developing your identity as a lawyer includes contemplating who you will serve and how you will best prepare to do so. As you consider your options, keep in mind that the job of an advocate, a truly effective advocate, requires thoughtful analysis of what the role of an attorney is in society and what skill sets are necessary to fulfill that role. As a law student, you have already attained a level of education and privilege that will be out of reach for the vast majority of others in our country. Use this opportunity to dive into an area of the law in which you have interest and find ways to give back in the process. Pro bono work will take you one step closer to understanding the importance of lawyers in our society. Use this pivotal year to explore and grow as an attorney-to-be through pro bono advocacy!