YourABA March 2013 Masthead

Build your business with pro bono

Nelson Miller

Nelson Miller

Rule 6.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which was adopted or replicated by state bar ethics rules and urges lawyers to perform pro bono service, begins, “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.” But there are many reasons beyond an ethics rule for lawyers to perform pro bono services, writes Nelson P. Miller in Building Your Practice with Pro Bono for Lawyers.

Miller practiced civil litigation for 17 years and went on to join the Thomas M. Cooley Law School as a professor, then associate dean of the Grand Rapids campus. Miller explains below how taking on pro bono work can help build a practice as well as some of the nuances of taking on this work.

What are the benefits of taking on pro bono work?

I wrote the book to answer exactly that question. Certainly, serving pro bono clients can transform how you feel about your law practice. It can increase your engagement, satisfaction and longevity, each of which can carry huge personal and financial benefits. Yet pro bono is not simply about doing the right thing and feeling good about it. Pro bono carries more tangible benefits. It teaches you new practice areas, expanding your law knowledge. It helps you develop new practice methods and tools, increasing your practice’s efficiency. It teaches you cross-cultural skills, making you better able to connect with and serve different clients. It teaches you about emerging client populations, expanding your client-development skills. It raises your reputation, giving you standing among judges and peers. It connects you with other service providers who can help you serve your paying clients. In short, pro bono can transform your practice. It transformed mine.

Are there any drawbacks to pro bono?

Your greatest fears about pro bono are not what may most affect you. You may think, as I initially thought, that pro bono clients will sue you, your paying clients will leave in droves, your law partners will abandon you, and the bar will revoke your license. None of that is likely to happen. I have served hundreds of pro bono clients, none of whom grieved or sued me. They were instead uniformly appreciative, and most deeply so. Your paying clients learn that they benefit from your pro bono work, in your higher reputation and expanded resources and skills. Your law partners will appreciate the same benefits, as will the bar. 

The drawback, instead, is to ensure that you recognize pro bono not as a substitute for paying practice but as a corollary to it. Resist the tendency to think that pro bono has greater value than paying practice. It does not. Pro bono and paying practice go hand in hand. Your work must be sustainable financially. Pro bono should help you see how. The best thing you could do for many pro bono clients is to develop new law products and services, learn new practice methods and develop stronger professional identity to the point that your paying practice reaches and serves underserved client populations.   

What are the ways that pro bono helps build business?

Pro bono helps build a practice both directly and indirectly. Directly, you are engaging new client populations in new practice areas using new skills and methods that you can often transfer immediately into paying practice. One pro bono immigration case, civil-rights case, foreclosure case or other case in a new practice area can give you immediate contacts, resources, knowledge, skill, methods and tools to take on contingency and other fee-based work serving the same client populations. Think of pro bono as a laboratory in which to perfect those skills, recognizing of course that pro bono cases still require competence. 

Indirectly, pro bono influences everything and everybody around you. First, it influences you. Your practice depends on your vitality. If your practice is not engaging you, capturing your passion, then everyone knows it, including your clients, prospective clients and referral sources. When pro bono reignites your passion for practice, your clients and prospective clients see it. So do your referral sources and professional networks. Pro bono shapes your reputation. I was in a soup kitchen providing pro bono service when a newspaper stringer just happened to stop by. That small fortuity led within a year to a statewide pro bono award for which lawyers still know me years later.  Even though I had no interest in awards, judges and lawyers certainly know me for it.

Are there certain types of pro bono clients that are better than others when it comes to building business? If so, why?

The answer depends on the practice you wish to build. My approach was to let the pro bono clients lead me to new practice areas rather than to be too directive and selective about it. “I am here to serve” can be an effective professional identity for generating new work. That said, if you know the practice area you want to develop, then connect with local agencies to find the underserved pro bono clients in that field. For example, if your intent is to increase a transactional practice rather than to represent individuals in disability, civil rights, family law or other litigation and administrative claims, then certainly to work with pro bono business and nonprofit startups makes sense. Every community of any size has many individuals without any resources but with substantial ambition to create something of value, be it a charitable organization or business. Find those individuals. Serve them pro bono. They will soon bring back or refer to you paying transactional practice in real estate, contract review, intellectual property, securities regulation, finance and banking, employment law and related transaction fields. 

Is there a certain percentage or amount of your business that should be pro bono?

Every lawyer should be asking him or herself, “How much pro bono?” The answer will depend on your practice and related circumstances. Some lawyers devote nearly full time to pro bono work at least for a limited period, depending for income on other lawyers in the firm, on family members or on accumulated financial resources. Taking a high-profile pro bono case may require an all-in commitment. It could also be the achievement that crowns a career — not something to miss. Other lawyers must do only a little pro bono at a time to keep up with paying practice. I hesitate to state, though, that no pro bono is a reasonable option. Financial or other exigencies may seem to dictate curtailing all pro bono. Those exigencies may be the product of a captive mindset rather than the cause of it. Break out of the mold. You may be surprised how much more effective you become in your paying practice when including some pro bono.

One way to gauge and regulate how much or little time to spend on pro bono is to set aside a specific regular amount of time for it. I began by setting aside one late afternoon each week to devote to pro bono service at a community site away from my office. To my surprise, I found that hardly anyone at the office missed me. For a time, I found that I could devote two late afternoons each week at sites in different communities.  At other times, I was serving only twice monthly. Keeping a regular schedule benefited me while also benefiting the pro bono clients. 

What is some advice for dealing with a difficult pro bono client?

Among the hundreds of pro bono clients whom I have served, I cannot recall one pro bono client giving me any particular trouble. (I can surely recall difficult paying clients.) The fact that you are gifting professional service of substantial value to the pro bono client creates substantial positive effect on the relationship, as it should. Difficult clients aside, pro bono service brought me a rainbow coalition of clients in every imaginable state and condition. I have so many rich memories of unforgettable encounters, including persons and things I never would have seen in my paying practice. 

What are some tips for not getting overwhelmed by pro bono work?

Share the love. Pro bono is not an island. In fact, one of the benefits of pro bono is that it often connects you with other lawyers, judges, law firm staff, law students and professionals in other fields. For example, here at Cooley Law School, we gladly recruit and assign skilled law students to help lawyers who take on pro bono cases. Those students do research, draft documents and assist counsel at interviews, depositions and trial. Another tip: Choose client populations and practice fields that spark your passion. If you are dreading the pro bono work and feel overwhelmed by it, then you are in the wrong place. Find another place.

For more information on pro bono, visit the Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service webpage as well as the ABA National Pro Bono Opportunities Guide.

Back to top




Think twice before you call yourself an expert


Are you ready for Windows 8? Should you be?


Build your business
with pro bono


Corporate counsel discuss value-based billing at ABA meeting

Software tools help lawyers generate more business, happier clients

Internal compliance programs and the FCPA: What works, what doesn’t?

Pleading ignorance is not protection against client data loss, say ABA panelists

Midyear panel discusses disability issues in the workplace


Judge: 12 ways to lose trials and how to avoid them

Scroll the smarter way: The latest iPhone and iPad apps to help lawyers work more efficiently

Avoiding procrastination can help lawyers dodge disciplinary problems with ending attorney-client relationships

Law firms must prepare for disasters, large and small, experts advise


Renew your membership


Shipping just got more affordable with UPS