Pro bono work, whether full time, part-time, or on a volunteer basis, can be both good and good for you. Everyone benefits when members of the bar use their standing to assist the larger population.
A healthy two-way street I’m not a psychologist. But I’ve been around long enough to know that relationships in which one party does all the giving and the other party only receives tend to not work out over the long run. And I’ve done enough career consulting with attorneys from the nonprofit sector to see that the same phenomenon plays out in the legal setting.
When you’re constantly expending energy and brain power without somehow getting meaningfully “refueled,” burnout happens. Don’t get me wrong: Burnout absolutely occurs in the private legal sector as well. But some of the perquisites (a fancy office with a large paycheck or a long, relaxing vacation after a hard case or even the satisfaction of initiating some kind of change at the macro level) can serve as a battery jolt and repower the giver.
When an attorney moves from one needy client to the next and the next and the next without a recharge, resentment isn’t far off. So how can you balance the desire (and maybe even the obligation) to help others while still preserving your own personal equilibrium?
What you have to give
As a lawyer, you’ll have the capacity, and arguably the obligation, to give something back to the world at large. You’ll have the education, the knowledge, and the access to the legal system to make a difference in the lives of others without such privileges. You’ll have resources available to you through your school, your law firm, company, or employer to get involved and make a difference.
Why do you think the small-town lawyers of old garnered the respect they did? They were stereotypically known for being wise and for (at least from time to time) giving of themselves and their time and zealously standing up for underrepresented members of their communities.
What you stand to gain
The fact that you’ll receive some benefit in return for your efforts doesn’t make you a selfish person. In my opinion, getting something back actually makes it more likely you’ll be willing and able to continue to give of yourself over a longer period of time.
Your ROI, or return on investment, from pro bono work can come in many forms. If you work for a nonprofit organization, you do get a paycheck, albeit likely a smaller one than your pals in BigLaw.
(Remember that money can’t buy happiness.)
More importantly, you get the satisfaction of knowing that you’re part of something larger than yourself. When you use your legal and other knowledge to help those in need, you’re arguably leveraging your legal training to its highest public capacity.
Feel pride in what you do. Recognize your contributions on a daily basis, and don’t measure your success by the size of your bank account. Speak on panels, share your story, and mount an effort to get every lawyer you know involved in some aspect of pro bono work.
If you don’t end up working in the nonprofit sector, you still have an obligation to assist, and you can still gain meaningfully from that involvement.
Consider volunteering as a way to expand your legal and non-legal skill set; work with a population you care about, and relearn how lucky you are to have had the education and training that you do.
How you can get involved
Before you dive into pro bono, do some preparation.
Start with a bit of self-assessment. As I mentioned in an earlier article about career change, start by asking yourself: What do I like to do? What causes interest me? What skills—both technical and transferable—would I like to further develop? What makes me feel good about myself?
Seek out opportunities to assist within those areas. Ask around to discover who’s doing something in an area in which you’re passionate, and ask them to share their experiences and resources with you. Follow the local and national news to see what topics are trending, and uncover groups or movements that might need your help. (Within the last year alone, think about all the media coverage given to immigration issues and the #MeToo movement.)
Actively inquire about pro-bono opportunities within your workplace, your school, and your community.
Sadly, some of the groups that need the most help don’t have the people power or the budget to aggressively go out and find volunteers. Make it easier on them (and yourself) by being the first to reach out; if the cause or organization is less well-known, there may also be fewer attorneys competing to work with that group.
Don’t limit your assistance to a legal role. Offering to help out in any capacity can lead to growth and development. You may find you have a natural talent in getting people to trust and share information with you.
Maybe you develop a knack for grant writing or acquire other greatly needed fundraising capabilities to help keep the money flowing in—a talent critical to any nonprofit. Lots of people acquire new skills by volunteering and then leverage those learnings into totally new careers.
The impact of change
The changes in law firm practice over the years, especially the exponential focus on billable hours and the skyrocketing of billing rates to justify them, have truly impacted the role of the lawyer as a community servant.
There isn’t enough time for most of us to bill our hours, see our families, eat a meal, and go to bed before having to do it all again the next day. That’s a fact.
But that doesn’t negate the need for those of us with extraordinary education, privilege, and access to the legal system to help those less fortunate. Use your talents and your learning to assist in making our world a better place for all.
You, your clients, and the optics for the entire legal profession all stand to benefit. And if that outcome isn’t good for everyone, I don’t know what is.