On January 15, 2013, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel on Pro Bono Opportunities as part of Practicing Law Institute’s Bridge the Gap program for newly admitted attorneys. The panel featured Laren Spirer (Pro Bono Manager, Debevoise & Plimpton), Melissa Godwin (Senior Associate, Shearman and Sterling), and Klara Ng (Staff Attorney, inMotion), who each brought a unique perspective to the questions “Why pro bono? And how?”
Surveying the crowd, we discovered that many in the room had participated in at least one pro bono activity previously. But could these newly admitted litigators make pro bono a part of their careers as they started down a demanding career path that includes long hours devoted to paying clients? We set about addressing many of the main concerns attorneys have about pro bono. I began the discussion by posing a simple question:
Why do pro bono at all? Aren’t there numerous legal aid organizations that attend to these needs?
The need for pro bono cannot be understated, and Klara offered some sobering statistics from the New York Courts about the lack of legal help among New Yorkers. Out of a population of eight million, more than 20 percent live below the poverty line. Klara added that of those, 1.2 million had one or more legal problems. In 2011, more than 2.3 million were forced to navigate the system on their own. The simple reality is there are more people in need of services than there is help to go around. Melissa and I noted that the Legal Aid Society is forced to turn away 8 of every 9 people that approach them for help due to lack of resources. Laren added that many areas of need for civil legal services involve issues fundamental to people’s everyday lives, such as housing.
So it is obvious that the need is overwhelming, but so is a busy work day: how do you find the time?
You need to make the time, said Melissa. She stressed the importance of pro bono to professional development. She added that not only does it give you the chance to hone your skills, but it offers the partners a chance to see you in action while getting you outside the walls of the firm. Laren noted that it forges good connections for the future. Both she and Melissa noted that friends or colleagues of theirs had found themselves on a new career path thanks to their pro bono work.
If you make the time in your day, how do you find cases or issues that interest you?
“There is a flavor of pro bono for everyone [whether you are] looking for a particular skill, area, or type of client,” said Laren. The panelists all agreed that many different types of pro bono opportunities existed. They also suggested that newly admitted attorneys look to housing and family courts for great opportunities to litigate cases in court.
Each of the panelists had unique experiences sharing or finding pro bono opportunities. As the Pro Bono Manager for her firm, Laren communicates with many nonprofit providers such as inMotion, and is always sharing various pro bono opportunities with her colleagues. Melissa found many opportunities within her firm by reviewing the cases regularly sent around by email. By simply responding to an email, she was able to work on an amazing case in which the pro bono teams helped to overturn a conviction for murder and free their client after many years of wrongful incarceration. While the chance to change the course of someone’s life was strong motivation, Melissa also emphasized all the skills she acquired as a young associate. At the case’s completion, a colleague told her he’d been waiting his whole career to work on a case like that.
But you don’t have to wait for an email for the perfect pro bono case to come along; sometimes you may be the one to bring the case to the firm. Laren talked about her own experience bringing clients to the firm. She had a personal association with a small organization, Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue. When she found out the organization needed legal assistance to incorporate as a nonprofit, Laren stepped in. She said that cases are frequently brought to the firm because of personal connections to organizations or individuals.
With so many opportunities and benefits, what’s the hesitation?
For those doubting that they have the necessary skills to take on a case, Klara said not to worry. Most civil legal services organizations have training programs and extensive mentoring. Laren added that, even if you’re not an expert, you can take a pro bono case. You’ll have the opportunity to ask numerous questions of experienced practitioners and learn in a hands-on manner. You’ll also gain confidence by realizing how much your legal training has already prepared you for.
And at the end of the day, Klara added, you’ll receive the reward of helping those in need. So, “why pro bono?” The better question is “why not?”
– Adam Friedl is the Pro Bono Coordinator for Pro Bono Net.