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The Pros of Pro Bono: Why Legal Professionals Can and Should Give Back

March 19, 2011 Attorney Articles

Daily Journal – Jessica Klarer Pride

The sluggish economy has been good and bad for the legal profession. The downside is obvious: a surge in layoffs, fewer billable hours and overall workplace malaise. The upside? An increase in attorneys investing extra time and energy into pro bono – a term which refers to legal work attorneys do without fees – and other community service work. In fact, according to ABA polls, the amount of pro bono legal work is up substantially in the United States, especially in large law firms, and has increased 10 percent since 2004, with 73 percent of lawyers polled saying they provide some pro bono work.

Most industries cannot claim a 73 percent involvement rate in pro bono work. Why the propensity to give back in the legal profession? Lawyers give back because they are uniquely suited to do so. Pro bono is a term derived from Latin meaning “for the public good.” Because legal careers are built on helping people and serving the public, pro bono work is an indispensable – and immensely fulfilling – career building tool for most attorneys. Such work can take on all forms and functions, including representing individuals near or below the poverty line in civil cases or working with an organization that serves the poor, such as a homeless shelter. Most firms allot its attorneys time for pro bono services. Indeed, some firms have even made pro bono a priority by requiring that lawyers devote a fixed number of hours to it; others even hire full-time pro bono partners. Firms who allow their attorneys to make time for pro bono – and adequately acknowledge these efforts – are often very successful and reap the benefits of satisfied, productive and involved staff members.

In addition to the sheer thrill of altruism, what are the benefits of taking on pro bono work? The reality is that law firm work can sometimes be monotonous, with hours of tedious research, motion writing and endless phone calls. Pro bono work adds variety, inspiration and an opportunity to get out from behind your desk – and is often a welcome break from the daily drill.

Additionally, it introduces attorneys to important and worthwhile causes and issues, and can also provide a firm legal foundation for young associates. Ultimately, by participating in pro bono work, older attorneys can finesse their skills, while younger attorneys can develop them – with potential tasks ranging from client communication to strategizing to negotiating to legal writing and even courtroom work.

Pro bono work is indisputably self-empowering, but studies show it is also good for your physical health. A recent Canadian survey found that 85 percent of Ontario residents who volunteer regularly rated their health as good, as compared to 79 percent of non-volunteers. Additionally, participating in pro bono work allows one to expand their contacts both socially and professionally. Studies consistently show that socially-connected people not only derive fulfillment and camaraderie from relationships, they also live an average of 3.7 years longer.

The largest pro bono project in the history of American jurisprudence was Trial Lawyer’s Care (TLC), orchestrated by the American Association for Justice (formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America).

Immediately following the events of Sept.11, AAJ called for a moratorium on any lawsuits related to the attacks, encouraging the enactment of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund – the most generous compensation program since Medicare was enacted in the 1960s.

With the creation of the fund, AAJ pledged that it would provide free legal representation for all Sept. 11 victim families. AAJ and state trial lawyer associations then launched Trial Lawyers Care, through which trial lawyers provided pro bono legal services to families eligible to file claims with the fund.

Lawyers from across the country participated in the program, truly an example of legal pro bono work at its best. Representing the victims of Sept. 11 was a massive and incredibly worthwhile undertaking, involving the time, talents and expertise of thousands of attorneys from throughout the United States and Canada.

This unprecedented project offers great evidence of how lawyers can effectively pool their resources and make a significant difference on a large scale.

Supporting the community goes far beyond just giving free legal advice. Indeed, attorneys have many unique and varied skills that can help pave the way for change. From helping homeowners in foreclosure to working with the homeless, there are a myriad of opportunities to give back. For example, the San Diego County Bar Association members participate in multiple service projects, among them serving as coaches and judges for the annual High School Mock Trial Competition, as VIP mentors to children reentering the community as juvenile parolees and as court-appointed special advocates through Voices for Children, a non-profit that ensures abused and neglected children find a safe home.

The key to meaningful and successful community service and pro bono work is to find something you are personally interested in, and essentially make it your own personal cause As an example, I feel strongly about standing up against sexual assault against women, so am in the process of volunteering at the legal clinic of the “Center for Community Solutions,” a San Diego based non-profit whose mission is to end relationship and sexual violence. And for three years, I have been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters, the nation’s largest donor and volunteer supported mentoring network. By doing so, I have helped make a significant difference in the life of a little girl, now age 10, who now wants to be a lawyer when she grows up. When I first met her she was shy and could not read. Now she is very outspoken and articulate – and one of the top readers in her class.

Other projects which have been especially gratifying for me include helping to rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina with fellow members of the American Association for Justice, working with Wills for Heroes to draft wills for police officers and coaching high school kids for a mock trial.

While I highly recommend picking one – or several causes – and sticking with them, some lawyers may not want to dedicate as much time, do not need the pro bono service requirement, or simply are not interested. In those cases, I recommend one-day events. Participating in a walk and fundraising for events such as the “Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure” or the “March of Dimes” are productive and exhilarating ways in which to give back.  Typically, they only take a few hours, and allow you to escape the desk and exercise and meet many inspirational people. Another way to get involved is through participation in local legal organizations such as Lawyers Club, the Los Angeles County Bar Association, La Raza Lawyers Association, Inns of Court and Consumer Attorneys of San Diego, etc. And most of these organizations offer one-day community service events.

A commitment to pro bono work is an integral – and fulfilling – part of any legal career. Whether it’s an individual effort, a small group of lawyers, or a concerted nationwide cause, we as attorneys need to get out there and make a difference.

Jessica Klarer Pride is an associate with San Diego-based Casey Gerry Schenk Francavilla Blatt & Penfield LLP. She chairs the service committee of the San Diego County Bar Association, is on the board of directors of the Consumer Attorneys of San Diego, and the board of governors of the New Lawyers Division of the American Association for Justice (AAJ).