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.
This is National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, a week dedicated to showcasing pro bono work and encouraging lawyers to engage in pro bono service to bridge the increasing access to justice gap. This year, Pro Bono Week also coincides with the week when many new associates join their law firms, so it seems like the perfect time to ask the question, “why do Pro Bono?”
The most obvious answer to that question is that pro bono work is critical to helping meet the legal needs of low-income and disadvantaged individuals. Just looking at the statistics from my adopted hometown of Washington, DC makes that clear. In the District, 30% of children live below the poverty line. The number of District residents living in deep poverty — defined as living below half the poverty line — has risen by 18% since 2007. Homelessness among families increased by 46% between 2008 and 2011, and in Ward 8 — one of the poorest neighborhoods in the District — the unemployment rate is 22%. As the number of DC residents living in poverty increases, so does the demand for legal services in such areas as eviction defense, foreclosure, domestic violence, and public benefits.
But at the same time as poverty has increased, funding for legal services in the District has decreased drastically as a result of the recession. The IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts) Program, which is the largest source of funding for the legal services network, has decreased by 80% since 2008. That decrease accounts for over a million dollars in lost revenue each year. Likewise, funding to DC legal services organizations from the federal government has dropped by more than 30%.
Pro bono work alone cannot solve this access to justice problem. However, it plays an important role in ensuring that low-income and disadvantaged individuals have an advocate in legal matters that can have dire consequences. As lawyers, we have to recognize that our efforts can make a real difference in someone’s life. Unlike our paying clients, our most vulnerable citizens do not have other options. If they don’t have us, they don’t have a lawyer.
Simply put, doing pro bono work is the right thing to do.
So that’s the noble reason to take on a pro bono matter. But doing pro bono work not only benefits our communities, it also benefits you. Pro bono work will be some of the most interesting and meaningful work that you undertake in your career. There are many different kinds of pro bono matters available, and pro bono work gives you an opportunity to do something that you feel passionate about, that inspires you, and that offers a change from your regular caseload. Many of us went to law school because we wanted to contribute to society, and doing pro bono work can help reconnect you with those original ideals.
Pro bono work also provides important training opportunities for junior associates. Associates working on pro bono matters are generally afforded greater responsibility and autonomy earlier in their careers, often managing a matter from start to finish under a partner’s supervision. As a result, you can develop critical lawyering skills that are difficult to teach through training programs, including case management, strategizing, problem solving, client counseling, and managing client expectations.
For associates, pro bono matters can help you gain experience specific to your practice area much faster than billable work, such as engaging in oral and trial advocacy, taking a deposition, registering a trademark, or negotiating a contract or a lease. This professional development will give you greater maturity, confidence, and skills in dealing with your commercial work, making you a more valuable asset to your firm.
In addition, pro bono work allows you to expand your internal and external networks. Within the firm, it allows you to work with associates and partners that you may not have had a chance to work with yet. It can also help to increase your visibility, as most law firms have internal mechanisms to publicize their pro bono victories and shine a spotlight on their lawyers who engage in pro bono work. Outside of the firm, it will give you the opportunity to connect with people with similar interests who you might not have met otherwise. The networking opportunities that pro bono work provides may also help you with business development down the road.
For new lawyers, getting involved in pro bono work early can be critical to making it part of your regular practice. At Mayer Brown, we instituted a policy that requires all incoming first and second year associates to complete 60 hours of pro bono within their first year at the firm. In creating this policy, we wanted to make sure that junior associates start incorporating pro bono into their caseloads from the very beginning, so that it becomes a part of their routine and something that they carry forward throughout their careers.
Indeed, while taking on pro bono work as a new lawyer may seem daunting, there are many legal services organizations that provide the training and mentoring that you will need to ensure that your pro bono client receives first rate legal representation. And the myriad benefits that pro bono work provides to our most vulnerable citizens, and to you, just make it the right thing to do. As Booker T. Washington said, “those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.”