Gain Experience Through Pro Bono

Vol. 29 No. 1


Pam Feinstein is an attorney and the Statewide Coordinator of Pro Bono Support, providing training and resources for all of the volunteer attorney programs in Washington State. She previously spent 16 years as the executive director of a volunteer attorney program in the Seattle area.


“I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.”

—Chinese Proverb


Let’s face it: Unless we participate in a clinical experience, law school does not really teach us how to be lawyers. Law school primarily teaches us how to “think like lawyers,” spot the issues, read and understand case law and statutes, and argue the law. The actual practice of law . . . not so much. We learn the realities of law practice when we finally graduate and are admitted to the bar—whether we work in large firms, legal aid programs, solos practices, or corporate work. Law schools have tried to change in recent years and provide more practical experiences, primarily because, as noted by Larry Kramer, dean at Stanford Law School, “Law firms are saying, ‘You’re sending us people who are not in a position to do anything useful for clients’” (“Law Schools Get Practical,” Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2011).


Learning by Doing

As lawyers, we still learn by practicing law, and for most of us that is a lifelong experience. According to the University of California’s Science, Technology and Environmental Literacy Workgroup’s Experiential Learning Project Group, learning by doing (experiential education) has a long history because “if your goal is to have the person understand the concept at a level that they can generalize and apply the understanding to new situations . . . experiential education is probably the best way to develop that level of mastery”. For many professionals—doctors, teachers, trade professionals—this style of learning takes place in school. For lawyers, experiential education primarily happens after we leave law school and start working.

For young lawyers, the chance to work directly with clients, draft documents, and argue in court can vary depending on their work setting. In a large firm, that opportunity is deferred a few years, but in a solo practice it is immediate. Regardless of the work situation, the opportunity to do pro bono work can greatly enhance a lawyer’s practice and provide important skill-building experiences. Most lawyers do pro bono work for altruistic reasons. According to the 2011 LexisNexis/Probono.Net survey “Why Lawyers Give Back,” “personal fulfillment” is the most common reason for doing pro bono (cited by 75 percent of respondents), with “commitment to a specific cause” and “meet an ethical obligation” coming in second and third. Nevertheless, the practical experience gained through pro bono work is a valuable benefit—whether the lawyer is starting his or her own solo practice, becoming part of a small firm, or joining a large firm. Most pro bono programs are aware of this and offer the training, support, and mentoring that allow volunteers to both learn and succeed.

Skills that can be developed or enhanced by taking pro bono clients include negotiating (with your client and with opposing counsel), drafting pleadings, handling discovery, arguing motions, representing clients at trial, learning about new courts, and writing briefs. For younger lawyers in larger firms, this might also mean the opportunity, early in their careers, to manage a case and client, develop a case budget, and work with opposing counsel. Lawyers who are entering into solo practice can gain additional experience by doing pro bono work in their practice areas, alongside their paying clients. In addition, they can find the kind of support and training needed to build their practice and confidence, as well as finding a community in which to participate.


Case Studies in Pro Bono Work

Charity Anastasio, a solo practitioner in Seattle, Washington, has been doing pro bono work since she opened her practice in 2008. The opportunities for newly admitted lawyers were limited at the time, and Anastasio knew she wanted additional training, as well as mentoring, in family law—one of her chosen practice areas. Volunteering for the King County Bar Association’s Kinship Care Solutions Project provided her with the training and support needed in her new practice, in addition to fulfilling her own desire to do pro bono work. The training materials were helpful in both her pro bono work and her regular practice, and the mentoring support was crucial. She learned along the way with both paying and pro bono clients. She also found a community of other practitioners—something that’s often difficult in a solo practice, which can be isolating. Anastasio says she has gained important experience with her pro bono cases—and has helped those who are most disenfranchised as well.

Kara Freel-Sparks has a solo practice in Bellingham, Washington, and has been doing pro bono work from the start. She notes that you can graduate law school knowing the law, but that it doesn’t mean much until you can apply it to real situations and actual clients. She started volunteering with the LAW Advocates landlord-tenant project that operates in the courthouse at eviction hearings. It provided her with a constant stream of real clients and situations, along with the expertise and support of the project’s staff lawyer. The high pressure of the project—lawyers meet quickly with clients prior to their hearing and try to negotiate a settlement—helped her gain confidence, as well as exposure to clients and client expectations. Her primary motivation for pro bono work is a basic belief that lawyers are required to provide access to justice; she has seen what the lack of legal assistance can do to people. Still, on a more practical level, Freel-Sparks says that pro bono work can provide additional experience when starting a new practice and that support and training from the pro bono program is important. When asked about the idea that pro bono lawyers might use pro bono cases to “practice” on low-income clients, Freel-Sparks felt it was a condescending attitude—it assumes incompetent lawyers. She points out that, as lawyers, we don’t always know everything about a case, but it is our job (and our training) to figure it out, do the research, and come up with a plan. In addition to gaining experience and confidence in her own practice, her pro bono work has been extremely gratifying and has allowed her to make a difference in clients’ lives.

Philip Chan and Kirstyn Palmisano are both relatively new sole practitioners in the Seattle area, and both started their volunteer work with the King County Bar Association’s Family Law Mentor Program. This project provides training and mentoring support for lawyers taking difficult domestic violence family law cases. Chan says that he wants to give back to the community by doing pro bono work, but he has also gained confidence from participating in the project. His pro bono work made him realize that he could handle himself in court. In addition, he has found that it provided him with networking opportunities and a degree of credibility with more experienced lawyers when he mentions his work with the project. Palmisano says that when she started her practice, the job market was very competitive and lawyers needed courtroom, trial, and client experience to compete. She, too, has gained confidence in her ability to walk into a courtroom and figure it out, along with improving her negotiating skills and her ability to think on her feet. Both Chan and Palmisano say that the support and training provided by the pro bono project were critical to their success.

When I first started working in the pro bono/legal aid field 20 years ago, larger firms were not as supportive as they are today. Back then, pro bono work did not count toward billable hours, and it was difficult for younger associates to find the time to take cases. Those of us running programs often would recruit these lawyers by emphasizing the kinds of skills that would be used. Today, firms are supportive of pro bono work and try to make it easier for all of their lawyers to handle pro bono cases—and many are now finding that their corporate clients expect the firm to be active in pro bono cases. Younger associates in many larger firms are often not given the opportunity to manage their own clients for several years. Adrian Urquhart Winder, a fourth-year associate with the Seattle firm of Foster Pepper PLLC, started volunteering for a landlord-tenant project last year. She saw it as an opportunity to work with her own clients and provide representation for people who have none. Winder recognized that having both parties represented by counsel was the ideal situation. She found the pro bono program staff to be excellent, and having training and support was a major consideration in choosing her pro bono work. Specifically from her volunteer work, she gained actual courtroom experience arguing before a judge and learned a number of important skills, including negotiating with opposing lawyers and working with clients and managing their expectations—none of which she would have experienced with the firm’s clients for a few years. Through her pro bono work, she has gained confidence that will apply to her future work with the firm. Winder says that pro bono work is definitely something in which all lawyers should get involved—not just to give back to the community, but also to help their development as lawyers, to develop new skills, and to become a part of a community of like-minded lawyers.

Sarah Mack is a senior associate at Patterson Buchanan Fobes Leitch & Kalzer, Inc., P.S., in Seattle. Her primary practice is municipal liability defense, with an emphasis on federal trials and appeals. In her pro bono work with a local medical-legal project, she has represented minors who needed medical assistance and who needed representation at both a dependency hearing and an immigration hearing. She had never been in juvenile court before and found it to be very different from her normal practice. She says that her pro bono experiences have increased her comfort level in going into a new court. She now approaches new situations with more ease and confidence—and she has found her pro bono work to be very rewarding.

Julie Orr, Pro Bono Coordinator for Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Seattle, notes that most young associates typically review documents and work behind the scenes on firm cases. Pro bono work is often a way to gain the requisite skills to achieve professional development milestones at a faster pace. Orr finds that, through pro bono work, lawyers have learned how to manage the client relationship, negotiate, manage cases, and draft legal memos, motions, and pleadings. In addition, the opportunity to represent a client in court is a highlight for younger lawyers, and she notes that even lawyers who are not litigators can gain insight by, for example, participating in a trial and seeing what happens in court when documents are poorly drafted. The firm encourages pro bono work and is honored to be able to help others.

Joanna Plichta Boisen, Pro Bono Counsel for Foster Pepper PLLC, notes that her firm has found less attrition with associates who do pro bono work—they seem to be happier and more satisfied with their work. She has seen lawyers gain skills in writing briefs, arguing motions, and working with both clients and opposing lawyers—all things that new associates do not routinely get to do. In addition, these associates have the confidence to step forward when asked by the firm to work more directly on a case.


A Winning Proposition

Doing pro bono work can be immensely satisfying and fulfilling—but along the way one also learns more about the practice of law. It is a win-win situation for everyone involved—the lawyer, the client, and the judicial system. As Tory Messina, New York program coordinator at Pro Bono Net, notes: “Pro bono work is not just about being a do-gooder, gaining legal skills or getting free CLE; it’s about becoming a true participant in the legal profession. Volunteering your time and legal expertise pro bono will allow you to see ‘as a lawyer’ how the justice system works (or doesn’t) . . . and how lawyers make a difference every day.” (“Pro Bono Offers Career Hope in Bleak Legal Market,” December 2008).

If you are not yet working with a pro bono program in your area, investigate your local programs and see what opportunities are offered. If you do not know what programs are in your area, the Directory of Pro Bono Programs on the ABA website can help. Whether you are a newly minted lawyer or one with years of experience, take a case and you will find yourself hooked on providing access to justice to our most vulnerable citizens.



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