The first sentence of Rule 6.1, Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service, of The Model Rules of Professional Conduct states: “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.”
The Rule goes on to give guidance on what that pro bono work should look like, including how many hours of pro bono service a lawyer should engage in. And while the guidance varies state to state, the idea behind the Rule does not. Lawyers have a responsibility to give back.
That responsibility can seem a bit challenging for lawyers practicing in-house. More often than not, corporate legal departments do not have formal pro bono programs. Resources and support staff are more limited in-house than at a law firm. Reasons for not engaging in pro bono, reasons that seem legitimate, creep into the mind of the in-house lawyer.
I don’t have the time.
Yes, you do. Pro bono service comes in all different shapes and sizes, and that means that the time required varies. You can spend as little as an hour at a one-time clinic once or twice a year. You can take on a case that may require your involvement over a longer period of time but that averages out to be limited hours per week or month. You have options! It is possible to find types of cases or clinics that will have little interference with your full-time job.
I don’t have the skills.
Yes, you do. You are a licensed attorney and that in and of itself is the most important skill. Do you know how to follow directions and fill out paperwork? Do you know how to write? Do you know how to speak? Negotiate? Figure out solutions to problems? As lawyers, the skills we use every day do not change when doing pro bono work. While particular cases and case law may not be something you are familiar with, there will be plenty of help and training provided along the way by legal organizations that offer pro bono opportunities. The gaps in your legal knowledge can be filled in by those organizations.
I don’t have malpractice insurance.
Not to worry. Many legal service organizations that use volunteer attorneys for pro bono service have malpractice insurance that will cover you. If necessary, you could decide only to work with legal service organizations that do offer malpractice insurance. In addition, the malpractice insurance that your company purchased for you as in-house counsel may cover you for pro bono work as well. Ask your risk management department to check.
Once you’ve convinced yourself that you can do pro bono, we can move on to the more important “why” question. Besides the obvious professional responsibility reason we talked about above with Model Rule 6.1, here are some other equally important reasons to do pro bono work.
It builds skills.
You can use pro bono cases or clinics to build skills that you may not otherwise get in-house. Some in-house lawyers have an interest in courtroom skills, and pro bono work is a perfect way to get that experience. Others may have an interest in building skills in a different area of the law and again, pro bono cases provide that opportunity.
It keeps you connected.
Doing pro bono work can keep you connected as an in-house lawyer to your community, non-profit organizations, and the private bar.
You make a difference.
This reason is the most important one. The impact that you can have on someone’s life, from keeping a family in their home, protecting the right of a veteran, or advocating for a child, is extremely rewarding. You should never overlook or forget that the skill set that you have as a lawyer can make such a difference in the lives of others.
To have the best pro bono experience as an in-house lawyer, connect with a legal services organization (or a few!), whether local or national, that can help you move forward in getting training, taking a case (or two!), or participating in a clinic of some type. If you previously worked at a law firm that had a pro bono program, use those connections to jump-start your pro bono work in-house.
Finally, if your corporate legal department does not have a formal pro-bono program, start one. Reach out to other colleagues that may be doing pro bono on their own already and talk about a plan. Form a committee. Partner with a legal services organization and an outside law firm partner to assist with resources and training. In addition, the Association of Corporate Counsel has an amazing amount of resources for helping a corporate legal department get involved with pro bono and starting a formal pro bono case. Make the case to your general counsel about why pro bono is important and why they should get behind it. It can serve as an excellent team-building exercise, with lawyers and non-lawyers participating in cases and clinics. You and your corporate legal department will be better because of it.