Some say that the secret to happiness in retirement is to become actively engaged. There is a lot of hesitancy by attorneys about retiring, and many of us work long beyond the point that we need to. Being a lawyer is an integral part of our self-identity. And yet retirement and the freedom to travel, spend time with friends and family, and be in charge of our schedule are very attractive.
Retirement can also be an opportunity to give back to the community through pro bono work. Most young lawyers dream of changing the world and improving the lives of others. The demands of work, life, and family can make pro bono or legal aid work difficult to do. Many lawyers say, "when I don't need the income I will help those who need a lawyer the most and can least afford it." Retirement can be that opportunity to help those who need it the most.
Volunteering even a little can make a huge difference. One morning a week spent helping survivors of domestic violence to obtain protective orders can help break the cycle of violence and save lives. People facing guardianship or conservatorship actions need help understanding their right to object (if they are able to object, there is reason to question the necessity of the action.) Helping families create meaningful advance care plans can guide end-of-life decisions and prevent the need to file for guardianship on down the road. One afternoon a week in landlord tenant court helping people facing homelessness understand their rights, and holding the landlords to the requirements of the law can save a vulnerable family from living on the street or in a car. Non-profits doing complex litigation can often use help from an experienced litigator – one case at a time can make a real difference.
Civil legal aid programs and public defender offices are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Legal Service Corporation reports that at least half of the qualified clients asking for legal help are turned away due to lack of resources – some studies show that the need for civil legal aid is five times our ability to meet the need. The opportunities run across the spectrum or legal issues and levels of service. Decide what you want to do and what fits your schedule.
Emeritus pro bono practice rules make it easier by lessening the licensing burden for retired or inactive attorneys who agree to work pro bono only. It can be costly to maintain a license and malpractice liability insurance if the only work you are doing is pro bono.
Attorneys licensed under the pro bono practice rules remain licensed to practice law (albeit in a limited form) and generally pay less in licensing costs and in some states are relieved of some or all of the continuing legal education costs. There are 38 jurisdictions that have some form of Emeritus rule. We maintain a listing of the rules in all states.
The rules vary widely in who qualifies and how, and in what is needed to be licensed under them. Virtually all rules cover attorneys who are retired from the active practice of law. Some rules have a minimum age, or minimum number of years of active practice to qualify. Increasingly the rules also include attorneys who are inactive, either because they are in effect retired or are doing work that is not the practice of law. Some states also include attorneys living in the state, but licensed in another state.
In exchange for agreeing to do pro bono work only, the licensing fees are dramatically reduced, or waived. Some states reduce the CLE requirements for Emeritus attorneys. Increasingly states are requiring that the pro bono work be done through a recognized pro bono, legal aid, or court sponsored project and that the organization must provide malpractice liability insurance coverage for the volunteer.
Legal aid, pro bono and court-based pro bono programs frequently provide malpractice insurance to cover all volunteer attorneys. In some cases the pro bono program coverage is secondary to any other insurance. When in doubt ask the pro bono program to check with their insurer to assure you are properly covered if you licensed under an Emeritus or pro bono practice rule and do not have other coverage. If you are interested in volunteering at a small non-profit that does not have insurance, consider making an annual donation to cover the premium. There are insurance companies who specialize in covering legal aid, pro bono and non-profit programs and the cost can be a lot less than you would expect.
Pro bono volunteering in retirement needs to be done on your terms. We urge pro bono programs to ask the volunteer what they want to do and to structure opportunities to fit. For an Emeritus volunteer, this includes providing a workspace (expect a shared workspace unless you are volunteering full time), as a retired attorney is unlikely to have an office with computers and technical support. If you are venturing into an unfamiliar area of the law, the program should provide training, sample forms and mentoring. Some of the rules require direct supervision by a staff attorney; every program should offer this as needed.
There are a lot of volunteer opportunities that make a real difference in the lives of vulnerable clients. Becoming actively involved as an Emeritus pro bono volunteer will help ease your transition to retirement, give meaning to your life, and help clients who need it the most.
An additional benefit, retired or inactive attorneys who report 500 or more hours per year of pro bono work may be eligible for a waiver of ABA membership dues. Learn more from the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service for more information.