July 2017

How to best fit pro bono into your law practice

With the Trump administration proposal to eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation, pro bono work will be in even higher demand.  That will make it all the more important for lawyers to choose the right pro bono project, manage it well and communicate efficiently with clients.

Henry Earl Turner and Julie Laeace offer ways to do that in the webinar Incorporating Good into Your Law Practice: A Guide to Taking on Pro Bono,” sponsored by the Center for Professional Development and the Law Practice Division.

“It’s a tough fiscal climate right now facing states, and state funds for social service agencies or legal aid agencies are drying up,” says Turner, a partner at Valorem Law Group in Chicago. He and Laeace, pro bono counsel and firm-wide director at Kirkland & Ellis LLP in Chicago, champion pro bono cases as a way to help low- and moderate-income Americans navigate the legal system and receive access to justice at a time when 43 million Americans are living in poverty.

Here’s their advice:

Think of pro bono as professional development. Pro bono cases meet the civil legal needs of low-income individuals while offering lawyers an option for professional development, marketing and meaningful results. Laeace says that pro bono work “offers an opportunity for junior lawyers in particular to do things in a legal context that they may not have been able to do in a paying client matter,” citing depositions and drafting contracts as examples. Today’s marketplace expects pro bono work, and it has been an important factor in recruiting millennials to different firms. “Millennial lawyers (ages 19-35) are going to be more inclined to work for firms or organizations that show a commitment to philanthropy and responsibility, and your pro bono program can really demonstrate that,”  Laeace says.

Consider the costs. Taking on a pro bono project comes with many considerations, but Laeace and Turner put the lawyer’s interests, available time commitment and costs associated with the case at the top of the list. The full breadth of costs associated with the case should be considered, including travel costs, filing fees and expert fees. Another important consideration is malpractice insurance coverage. “Often, a firm’s malpractice insurance will cover pro bono work, but the pro bono activities have to be disclosed during the renewal of the policy or as otherwise requested by the insurer,”  Laeace says. Language barriers can be common in pro bono cases, so lawyers should also consider if the case will require translation services.

Be sure to manage pro bono projects. Laeace and Turner’s tips for managing a pro bono project include tracking time, maintaining communication with the referring agency and selecting an opportunity that meets with limitations on time, money, support staff and training. While both stress a lawyer’s ethical obligation to treat pro bono clients the same as any other client, Laeace shares that “low-income individuals experience stressors that those of us at moderate or high incomes just don’t experience.” Consequently, there are additional considerations associated with this clientele, as they may be resistant to assistance or behave in a way that is different from typical attorney-client relationships.

Conduct your own in-take interview. Laeace recommends making the first client meeting in person: “I suggest you meet face-to-face with the client and conduct your own intake interview, even if the referring organization has already given you notes.” She also advises giving the client a stack of self-addressed, stamped envelopes at the first meeting to alleviate the burden on the client and help them be more responsive. Meeting with the client face-to-face is a chance to build rapport and explain the retaining letter, your limited scope of assistance and the client’s responsibility to keep you informed with their contact information. Keep in mind that clients may move frequently, she says, have phones that become disconnected and atypical work schedules. If you take on a domestic violence case, make sure it is okay to contact your client at their home or address. If you need documents from the client, give them advance notice and ask them to bring the documents to your office so they aren’t burdened with copying them.

After the initial meeting, map out the costs and time you anticipate the case will require and present them to your colleagues so you can divvy up responsibilities or costs. While pro bono clients are clients of the firm, “it’s important to remind the non-attorney staff that they will  need to manage their time so that matters for paying clients aren’t left unattended,” Turner says.

Prepare for contingencies. If communication with a pro bono client goes south, Laeace and Turner recommend utilizing their legal aid organization as a resource. Among the services they can offer are assistance in the event the client requests representation outside the scope of the case, or help with reconnecting if a client stops responding to you. 

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