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What Pro Bono Can Do for You (. . . And What You Can Do Pro Bono)

Elizabeth A Shirey

What Pro Bono Can Do for You (. . . And What You Can Do Pro Bono)
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Early-career attorneys working in private practice or the public interest realm can benefit from spending time on pro bono work. Whether you are looking to build concrete skills, explore new practice areas, make a difference for low-income clients, or all of the above, diving into pro bono opportunities can broaden your experience and allow you to hone your legal skills in ways that your day job may not. Here are some ways that pro bono work can expand your legal skill set and make you a well-rounded attorney.

Client Interviewing and Communication

Many pro bono opportunities offer direct contact with clients seeking legal services, such as individuals pursuing asylum, tenants fighting eviction, or veterans struggling to access disability benefits. Regular interaction with clients can build your interviewing and client management skills as you learn an individual’s need, strategize to meet that need, and maintain strong lines of communication throughout your representation. Earning your client’s trust and learning their story may take work. It requires translating “legalese” into more digestible concepts and strengthening your communication and listening skills. All of these components are directly translatable to almost any area of practice, but many early-career attorneys may not have regular opportunities to develop them. These interactions may present opportunities to use or practice skills in a language other than English.

Responsibility and Independence

Many early-career attorneys—especially in private practice—long for more autonomy over their work. In pro bono environments, independence is often the name of the game. You may have primary responsibility for a case from intake or soon after through completion of the matter. In busy legal aid settings, staff attorneys may be eager for you to take control of your own interviewing, research, and drafting. This can result in significant freedom in the writing process, rather than heavy editing by others.

“On Your Feet” Experience

Depending on your practice setting, time in court can be rare and highly prized. Pro bono representation can offer opportunities to appear before administrative tribunals, specialized courts (e.g., drug court or homeless court), or state or federal courts. This “on your feet” time can strengthen your oral advocacy skills, knowledge of court procedure and custom, and overall comfort in the courtroom.

Laying Groundwork for Transition

You may already know that you do not intend to stay in your current position long-term. Pro bono work can offer the chance to explore practice areas (e.g., immigration) or settings (e.g., nonprofits) that you do not currently practice in, allowing you to see if there might be a better fit for you in the future. For those seeking to transition from private practice to public interest or one area of public interest to another, pro bono work can demonstrate interest, lay the groundwork for transition, and open networking opportunities to make such a transition possible.

Making a Difference

The points above answer the question, “What can pro bono do for you?” This should never replace the more important question: “What can you do pro bono?” Your legal education, confidence navigating legal and government systems, and volunteer time can be channeled toward keeping a family in their homestrengthening voter protections, or shining a light on convicted individuals’ innocence. Whether the hours you can dedicate are many or few, they can make a marked difference in a client’s life and well-being. Do not underestimate the impact your skills can have on the lives of others.