Committing to pro bono is all about stepping up to be the person who fills a need. As attorneys, we have an ethical obligation to provide 50 hours of pro bono service a year, which can sometimes seem daunting. Building your personal pro bono practice starts with the easiest step: take a case. Follow these simple tips to help you step up and reach your 50 hours.
Look for Referrals from Legal Services and Judges
You do not have to look far for a pro bono case because pro bono clients are searching for you. When starting out, consider taking cases referred to you directly by a legal services association or a judge. Do not hesitate to reach out in either situation to let them know you are willing to take on a case. When you take a case from a legal services organization, you inherit support, mentorship, and even malpractice insurance. When you take a case referred by a judge, you establish rapport with the court. In both cases, you build goodwill; you send the message that you are not just another attorney—you have a heart.
Define the Scope of Your Representation
Consider engaging in some level of limited scope pro bono representation. Limited scope representation can often allow for a more manageable time commitment in providing services. Regardless of the scope, you need to define that scope in an engagement agreement. Are you taking on a pro bono parenting plan controversy? Great—tell the client you will see it through to the establishment of a final parenting plan to avoid continued representation for every motion to amend or motion for contempt that the parties will file in the years ahead.
Communicate with Your Clients in a Way That Works for Them
Attorneys often claim that pro bono clients are not as respectful of their time. That is not usually the case. Instead, realize that your client may not have ever worked with an attorney before and may need you to outline your expectations. Consider what barriers they may be facing. Are they working 9 to 5? Then they might not have a job that allows them to drop everything to pick up your call. Do they have a limited phone plan? Consider downloading a texting app. Try to foresee these kinds of issues before it becomes a problem.
Coordinate with Other Professionals
You may encounter a client in a hard place. Think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Your clients cannot focus on their legal needs when they don’t have anywhere to sleep or enough food to eat. Realize, however, that you are not a social worker or counselor and have no obligation to fill that role. The most efficient way to help your client with their real-life needs is to put them in touch with real-life helpers. Get to know your local service organizations and their players. They will take the pressure off you to solve all the problems—particularly the ones you are not trained to solve.
Do Not Reinvent the Wheel for Simple Pleadings
Not to be cliché, but do not reinvent the wheel. If you don’t have examples of basic pleadings, look no further than your state’s self-help websites or training materials prepared by your local legal services organization. They have an interest in helping you succeed. Happy pro bono attorneys take on more pro bono cases, so there is a vested interest in your success.
Taking on a pro bono case is not as daunting as it may seem. Step up and take a case. Training and mentorship opportunities are abundant. Following these simple tips along the way will ensure you can fulfill your obligation and make a difference.