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After the Bar

Public Service

5 (Good) Reasons Not to Do Pro Bono Work

Karen Lapekas

5 (Good) Reasons Not to Do Pro Bono Work Garan

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Pro bono work fulfills something in me—and my career—that other cases do not. It gives me a sense of purpose and a feeling that I am making a positive mark on the world, albeit a small one.

But I don’t think it’s for everyone, at least not all the time. So, if you are equivocating over whether to take a pro bono matter, ask whether you fall into any of the following categories. If you do, reconsider accepting a case until you can do so at the right time, for the right reasons. It’s okay to say, “No.” Sometimes, it’s the best answer.

Ultimately, however, I hope you’re inspired to do more. I hope you realize that letting go of other commitments so that you have time to spend in pro bono service may be the best thing you’ve done not only for others but also for yourself.

1. You Want Public Recognition

Behind the numerous public awards for pro bono service are countless attorneys who have never been recognized. They quietly serve and frequently do more than those who get their picture posted in the local paper.

And those who do receive recognition likely weren’t looking for it. They may even be uncomfortable with it.

Recognition occurs—if at all—after years of pro bono service. But those who serve usually do not care. Why? Because the work is rewarding along the way and more gratifying than any award they could or would receive. The reward is in the work itself, in the heartfelt “thank you” from clients who might have otherwise faced the legal system alone or, more likely, not been able to face it at all. The reward is knowing they made a difference in a life, the consequences of which may benefit untold others and future generations. Public recognition is just a cherry on top; it’s not what makes the work worthwhile.

2. You’re Looking to Score “Wins” in Court

I suspect most pro bono cases are ultimately losing battles. By the time a pro bono attorney gets assigned, clients have often tried to litigate or advocate on their own behalf. In doing so, they may have made fatal errors, omissions, or admissions. Or they have pursued a case without fulfilling prerequisite procedures. Without fully understanding the law and its nuances, clients may have pursued the wrong causes of action or missed jurisdictional deadlines.

When you arrive later, while there are cases you can resuscitate, it’s more likely that you advise the client on how to move forward in light of an imminent loss.

But does that mean you failed them? Not at all.

Perhaps the greatest thing a pro bono attorney can do is make their client feel heard and, for a time, be their voice. Finally, someone clearly explains the law and their rights. After fighting a legal system that feels rigged against them, they can see how it’s built to serve them. Having someone fight by their side, even if it may ultimately be a losing battle, can rejuvenate their confidence in the legal system and the trajectory of their own life.

Pro bono “wins” often don’t occur in court. They occur through the connection with our clients, the hope we help restore, and the sharing of knowledge. You may explain that, in the end, the court reached the “right answer” under the law, even though it feels incredibly unfair. The law isn’t fair. But knowing it’s not them—it’s the law—that’s the problem goes a long way to restoring their faith in it.

3. As Part of Your “Professional Responsibility,” Your State Bar Requires Pro Bono Service or a Donation to a Legal Aid Organization

This advice depends on your State Bar. Check the rules. However, if your heart is not in pro bono service and your State Bar does not absolutely require it, don’t do it. If you are in a season of your life where you simply cannot manage one more thing without something else breaking, wait. Donate money instead. And if you cannot afford to donate, work on being the healthiest and happiest person and best lawyer you can be to provide even better pro bono service in the future when ready.

4. You Want to Learn a New Area of Law

The amount a client pays does not determine the level of competency required to represent them. Pro bono are not cases to “cut your teeth on.” However, they are opportunities to co-counsel with an experienced attorney. If you want to learn a new area of law and gain experience through pro bono work, seek a mentor willing to co-counsel.

5. You’re Overwhelmed and Facing Burnout

A pro bono case should not be the straw that breaks your back. Don’t take a pro bono case when you struggle to manage your own. It’s bad for you; it’s bad for all your clients. Before accepting a case, assess whether you can give as much to that client as you can your paying clients. Are you already sacrificing your own mental and physical health with existing obligations? If so, now is not the time to take a case. Now is the time to reassess your existing commitments.

For it is in giving that we receive.

–Saint Francis of Assisi

If this Saint Francis of Assisi quote sounds like a trite platitude, I challenge you to take a pro bono case. Pro bono may be the purest form of legal representation. Without the cloud of financial pressure, the client and attorney can focus together on removing the pain of injustice. Without the burden of the trickling sands of invoiced time, you can focus on a common goal: justice. In the process, it might restore your faith in a law practice and legal system that is wearing everyone down. 

Listen to Karen Lapekas discuss the ins and outs of pro bono work on the Young Lawyer Rising podcast.