In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net has lined up a variety of guest bloggers from law firms, legal aid organizations and elsewhere to share their pro bono ideas and experiences. Check back each day between Oct. 22-26 for new posts, and visit the Celebrate Pro Bono site to learn how you can get involved in events near you.
I graduated law school fifteen years ago. I had a brief career as a litigator at a medium sized firm followed by a short stint at a boutique employment litigation firm. During that time, I did some pro bono work, but I knew that I’d be happier in a full-time position that focused on public service, similar to the work I did before law school, but in a position that utilized my law degree.
For twelve years, I have done just that, working first at Pro Bono Net and now, for the past seven years, as the Pro Bono Manager at Debevoise & Plimpton. In both of these positions, I have known that the work I do each day ultimately benefits low-income people in need of legal help – even on the days when I am buried in spreadsheets, or spend the majority of a day slogging through email!
When I started at Debevoise, I made sure that, when I was ready, I would have the option to do pro bono work as well as manage the pro bono practice. Given my other obligations, I wasn’t even able to consider whether or not I was “ready” to do pro bono work; for years I simply had too much other work to do. Finally, after six years, I started to think about what I could do, realistically. I hadn’t practiced in over ten years, and frankly, I had to overcome a decent amount of fear before committing to any sort of pro bono representation.
Many lawyers who take on pro bono work may find themselves in a similar situation, having to overcome the fear or insecurity of working in a subject area that is new and unfamiliar to them. Some lawyers may even let this fear prevent them from doing pro bono. My advice to these people is this: make that fear your motivation to do pro bono, not your excuse. If you are scared to give advice or represent a client after completing well-planned training from experts in the field, imagine how your potential clients may feel. They likely know nothing about the area of law with which they currently find themselves dealing, not to mention that they might never have set foot in a courtroom before. You can help, despite any fear you may have.
I was scared the first day I went to New York City Family Court to provide brief advice through their pro bono program, even though I had completed a fair amount of training. Now, having gone back several times, I feel comfortable providing support and information to people who wouldn’t have it otherwise and guiding them through the complexities and challenges of family court.
My shifts in family court are a forceful reminder that I can make a difference in someone’s life, and in turn, help me make a case to my colleagues for taking on a new pro bono project, particularly to those who may be on the fence. Never underestimate the impact you can have on someone in need, and never underestimate the power of hearing the words “thank you” to make you realize that a little pro bono goes a long way.