October is Pro Bono Awareness Month, so it makes sense for me to focus this column on pro bono work. Before your eyes glaze over and you start looking for pictures of people you know elsewhere in this publication, stick with me for a minute. Sure, there are the obvious warm and fuzzy “volunteer to save the world” arguments for practicing pro bono publico service, and if you know my professional history, you know I believe them all. I think I am as warm and fuzzy and altruistic as I can be while still making my mortgage payments. I believe that doing pro bono work increases your engagement, satisfaction and longevity in this profession and that in turns benefits us in all ways long term.
But here is a side we don’t speak about: How pro bono work can be a critical part of building your practice. Yes, pro bono service can carry very tangible benefits, and frankly too few people remember that.
Early on in my legal career, I was oblivious to pro bono publico. I admit it—I worked for a pretty big firm, I was a junior associate to a senior associate to a junior partner to a senior partner (yup—never saw a client), but I loved it and I loved the people I worked for. Pro bono was not a true part of my practice early on because I believed I just knew enough to be dangerous. My professional world was small and focused. I had little desire to use my powers for good because I wasn’t sure I even had powers in the first place. It was the late 80’s. Women wore Ricky Ricardo shoulder pads in their oversized blazers, permed their hair, were mentored by Susan Dey on “LA Law” and were in large part singularly focused on “making it” in what at that time was a predominantly male profession. I was mentored by some of the best in the profession. I was carefully taught, given softball cases to cut my teeth on, and did not have to worry about building my book of business.
We’ve talked about this; about how the practice of law is changing, with more and more successful law students getting out of school only to find they have no job, no teacher, no mentor, no book of business and frankly no idea of how to start being a lawyer.1
Bluntly and unapologetically: Consider pro bono work. It can teach you new practice areas; it can expand your legal knowledge. It can help you develop new practice methods and tools, and it can increase (or even establish) your efficiency. Pro bono practice can teach you cross-cultural skills and expose you to a clientele you may have never tapped into. The best pro bono programs provide education, mentorship, malpractice insurance and a hand to hold onto, so you are never left to cut your teeth on your own. In short, for those young lawyers who have not had the benefit of a wonderful teacher, pro bono service can be just that. In short, pro bono service can make or transform your practice.
Not only should you do pro-bono work, (see RPC 6.1—yes, you should. I’m using my mom voice) but you should do pro bono work to become a better lawyer, too. Read: “Building Your Practice with Pro Bono for Lawyers,” a book written by former litigator, now law school professor Nelson P. Miller, who suggests that 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, says Miller, 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 look to work with pro bono businesses and nonprofit startups. It just makes sense. Find those individuals. Serve them pro bono. They will soon bring back or refer to you paying clients in real estate, contract, IP, securities regulation and other related transaction fields.
I have to close with warm and fuzzy. It’s in my DNA. Use your powers for good—you DO have them. Once you go pro bono you will never go back because you will never have more grateful clients. Choose what you feel passionate about and do it for free. I have to throw a blatant shout out to the many friends and colleagues who have taken cases for me on a pro bono basis—and in turn, I am not shy about referring them paying clients and suggesting their work is indeed “award worthy.”
Because it is. •
1 Commercial: go to indybar.org to see the many programs this organization has created over the last few years to mentor newly minted attorneys.