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After the Bar

Public Service

Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

Sue Greenberg

Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

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“The first thing we do,” said the wisecracking rebel in Shakespeare's Henry VI , is “kill all the lawyers.” Always greeted by wild applause and cheers, the famous line has become a rallying cry for anyone who has an ax to grind against attorneys.

Well, let's not kill all the lawyers. 

The Legal Profession Has an Image Problem

National opinion polls measuring the public’s view on the honesty and integrity of various professions regularly rank attorneys toward the bottom, not far above car sales associates and members of Congress. This disdain may explain why I often hear laughter when I explain that I work for St. Louis Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts. “Lawyers volunteer?” So many incredulous stares!

Yet, the tradition of unpaid service pro bono publico (for the public good) has longstanding historical roots dating back to Roman tribunals. The obligation was codified 69 years before Shakespeare’s birth by an English statute that provided for the appointment of “learned Councell” to represent paupers.

Today, the American Bar Association’s rules of professional conduct say every lawyer has an obligation to provide legal assistance—ideally, at least 50 hours per year—to those unable to pay. While young lawyers have many excellent opportunities to assist those in need, you may find that working with artists and cultural organizations is a perfect fit.

Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts Programs

Across the country, more than 25 volunteer lawyers for the arts (VLA) programs match clients with attorneys who share the belief that success in the arts should depend on creative energy and talent, not on the ability to afford quality legal services.

VLA programs are not a single organization but rather an informal network united by similar missions and provide referrals for one-on-one counsel and related educational programs addressing the business needs of the creative sector. Each VLA program operates independently. Most are nonprofit organizations, while others are housed within arts services organizations, law schools, or bar associations. Without exception, the VLA programs are run by enthusiastic staff members who are sensitive to the needs and interests of their volunteers.

VLA Pro Bono Opportunities

VLAs offer meaningful opportunities for transactional attorneys to use their expertise while engaging in pro bono service. VLA lawyers assist with IP, entity formation, nonprofit operations, contracts, labor and employment, immigration, dispute resolution, real estate, among other matters.

During the pandemic, volunteer attorneys for the arts have responded to urgent requests for guidance on accessing unemployment benefits and PPP loans, tracking down missing stimulus checks, force majeure provisions, bankruptcy, evictions, and producing virtual programming.

VLA volunteers also make presentations on negotiation strategies, copyright, estate planning, freedom of expression, and taxes. These educational programs help members of the creative community avoid legal problems, understand their rights and responsibilities, and take their practices to the next level.

At St. Louis Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts, our volunteers include partners from large firms (many have provided services for decades), young associates, in-house attorneys, and solo practitioners. Many studied the arts or humanities as undergraduates. Others have family members or friends who are artists. All say they enjoy working with creative clients on stimulating assignments that generally take between two and fifteen hours.

Becoming a VLA Volunteer

Why should you become a volunteer lawyer for the arts?

  • To provide needed services to low-income artists working in every discipline, small creative businesses, and nonprofit cultural organizations
  • To enjoy working with inspiring and appreciative clients
  • To support the arts in your community
  • To build your practice by sharpening your skills and gaining invaluable experience
  • To get a refreshing change of pace from your daily routine
  • To grow your personal and professional networks
  • To elevate your chosen profession
  • To feel the priceless personal satisfaction of giving back

VLA programs may provide the perfect opportunity for you to meet your pro bono obligation. It’s no surprise that VLA pro bono clients are incredibly grateful for the assistance they receive, but our volunteers are equally effusive about the opportunity to serve. To quote Portia from The Merchant of Venice, “How far that little candle throws his beams. So shines a good deed in a weary world.”