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Pro Bono: Public interest, self interest

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Pro Bono

In 2012, the New York Court of Appeals adopted the “Pro Bono Rule,” requiring those who seek admission to the state bar to complete 50 hours of pro bono service. A few years into this new rule, opinions vary on whether it’s is a good thing. Law students are exceptionally busy.

I work at a busy non-profit that provides civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers. In addition to many other law student and volunteer opportunities, we have a 50-hour pro bono program designed for students and graduates to meet this bar admission requirement.

Occasionally, a law student trying to complete their 50 hours walks into my office and says, more or less, that they hate pro bono work. They may say that they contacted my office about doing pro bono work only because they had to. They have little empathy, less time, and no desire whatsoever to continue pro bono work past the time required.

They have a point. Adding a week plus of charity onto a law student’s pre-existing commitments can seem insane. Some in the legal community question the benefit of forcing people to do “mandatory volunteerism.” Others may dismiss the idea of pro bono work as a great ideal of the profession, arguing that pro bono work has more to do with helping the person or firm performing the service than it does with helping those in need. I understand these points. Doing good work for free is a privileged opportunity and it is easy to fall into self-congratulations, accolades, and false praise.

But if a selfish exercise, it is no less a great one – one that all lawyers should do or try to do, if for nothing more than their own self-interest. Here’s why:

Do Pro Bono For Your Resume. Pro bono work, especially for a cause you believe in, tells people something about you – something that cannot be reduced to grades, verdicts or billable hours. One of the most attractive qualities in a job candidate is that they believe in something and that they want to share it with others. You can read any job website and it will tell you that charitable work on your resume is a good thing.

Yes, every client and every hiring partner wants to know that you can get the job done. They also want to work with a human being. To give freely your time and knowledge – a lawyer’s most valuable commodities – is to let others know that you are willing to sacrifice. That is an attractive attribute in a candidate, an employee, and a co-worker.

Do Pro Bono to Be a Better Lawyer. Whether it’s service for 50 hours or 50 weeks, you will learn something in your pro bono work that increases your skill set. Doing pro bono work generally means working with clients and colleagues that you might not normally have contact with. Diversity of opinion, knowledge and background can be remarkably valuable. Whether you practice in financial services, litigation or tax, spending time working with disadvantaged clients is likely to expose you to different professional challenges.

Here are some things our pro bono students have told us they learned in their 50 hours:

  • What an order to show cause is and how to write one;
  • How to stop speaking “legalese” when talking to a client or adversary and how doing so can make one’s point more compelling;
  • How to listen to, speak with, and gather useful information from a client dealing with a highly emotional and emergent situation.

These skills serve attorneys in any practice, and as such, most attorneys will eventually learn them. But what is the likelihood that a first-year associate would have the opportunity to learn these skills during their first 50 hours at a firm? The attorney who does pro bono work benefits by being better, sooner. The firm benefits from having a lawyer who has worked in a non-law firm environment – one where the attorney has likely had to face unique, challenging moments.

Do Pro Bono Because it’s a Great Marketing and Recruitment Tool. It’s easy to dismiss pro bono work as just another PR stunt. It’s about advertising; it’s about getting your name out there and showing largess, it’s generosity as marketing tool. Firms love to advertise their wins in pro bono cases, their awards for pro bono service, the ability of their associates to count their pro bono work as “billable.” So what?

Obtaining asylum for a pro bono client may take as much work as a successful dispositive motion in a commercial contract dispute. The skills learned and utilized in either case are often the same. Any professional achievement is worthy of praise and dissemination. When a lawyer or firm responsible for that achievement states they are proud of it, that’s a good thing. If touting pro bono accomplishments yields positive consequences for that firm or attorney, that’s an even better thing, because it means that they will likely continue to perform pro bono work.

I don’t believe that all students or attorneys engage in pro bono work for selfish reasons. I only suggest that it’s not bad that some do. Pro bono work performed or encouraged for the “wrong” reasons – because it is required for bar admission; because the firm can brag about it on their website; because the recent law school graduate can’t find paid legal work in the for-profit sector – is still work that is getting done. The skills are still getting learned.

Most importantly, clients who would not otherwise have access to an attorney get representation. Even the pro bono volunteers in our office who clearly do not want to be here contribute enormously to our work. More people are served and are served well. Our clients love our pro bono volunteers and don’t express much interest in their motivation for being here.

So even if it is true that pro bono work is often motivated by a self-interest, that is not the whole truth. The greater truth is that pro bono work helps thousands of people every year. It helps people to stay in their homes, protects them from abusive partners, keeps the innocent off of death row, and a million other worthy achievements. Notable is that when polled, students and attorneys alike describe pro bono as some of their most satisfying and engaging work. Many do more than what is required.

Not every pro bono experience is personally transformative, but each hour of time (or 50), given without compensation, certainly has that potential – for the attorney giving their time and for the client receiving it.

So, take on a case, sit at a help desk in court, provide an hour’s worth of advice to someone who would not otherwise have access to your time and skills, earn your requirements for the bar. Whether your motives are selfish, well-intentioned or a bit of both, it matters less why you do it, than that you do it at all.

For students and graduates bristling at the pro bono requirement, we hear you. But you never know. You might learn something. Or worse – you might like the work.

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Adam J. Halper and Caroline L. Bersak Adam J. Halper is an attorney, mediator and the director of legal services at The Family Center, where he leads a department of lawyers, paralegals and pro bono volunteers in the representation of thousands of clients every year in a wide variety of litigation and transactional matters. Adam was a staff attorney at Legal Services –NYC, the nation’s largest public interest law firm. He is also a volunteer arbitrator for the New York State Civil Court. Caroline L. Bersak is the assistant director of legal services at The Family Center. Caroline first worked with The Family Center as a law student intern and then returned as a post-graduate law fellow. Prior to rejoining The Family Center as a Staff Attorney in 2010, Caroline was an associate in the Commercial Litigation Unit at Day Pitney LLP.