Pro bono work is work undertaken without charge. It’s shorthand for the longer phrase pro bono publico, which literally means “for the public good.”
It’s something the legal profession has always encouraged for many reasons. That’s mostly because it’s the profession’s contribution to the community, especially those most unable to obtain legal services themselves for a number of socioeconomic reasons.
As you begin your practice, pro bono work might seem contrary to your primary focus of finding a way to make yourself useful—by racking up billable hours and being a strong producer for your law firm, if private practice is where you end up. You’ll be trying to demystify what makes senior partners happy, and you might think pro bono work won’t get the same attention as assignments that are financially more productive because it doesn’t have dollar signs attached to it.
Use your power wisely
In truth, most senior partners recognize that there are all kinds of benefits of their firm’s pro bono program.
Those include giving new associates much-needed experience, providing inexperienced lawyers with a chance to demonstrate what they can do on a seemingly low-risk stage, and providing public relations value to the firm.
Also, when you do pro bono work, you’re part of a profession—and doing it is one of the best ways to offset or soften negative views of the legal profession. In the time of a pandemic, with so many people without work and very stressed, being part of the cause of pro bono work has never been so important—for the clients, the legal profession, and our society.
Beyond providing legal services at no cost, pro bono also helps shape public perceptions about lawyers.
The general public often fears the legal profession because they impute to lawyers a kind of superior knowledge. Along with that, there remains a slightly paranoid sense that we’re using our knowledge to socially judge clients and their lives, even to injure them.
Lawyer jokes might be rooted in just that kind of paranoia; they may be an effort by nonlawyers to immediately bring lawyers down to size so those telling the jokes can cope with their fear of our profession. In the psychological world, laughter is the sudden release of anxiety.
In some ways, if we’re honest, we do use our legal experience in the trenches in favor of our clients and against their opponents. We are, after all, warriors for hire.
The value of empathy
For many who’ve been in the legal profession for the long haul, there’s also an abundance of empathy toward other human beings. Many of us learn to understand and empathize with people and the troubles they get into without much judgment at all. Doing pro bono work is an important part of that human journey, one that always makes us better lawyers.
One common definition of empathy is the ability to stand inside the skin of others and to feel what they’re feeling. This ability is very human; it’s an outgrowth of hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution as we learned, in evolutionary terms, to infer the intentions of strangers and to try to read the minds of others so we can discern whether they’ll hurt or take advantage of us.
From the evolutionary development of this ability came the ability to also read the mental and emotional state of others, which gradually evolved into empathy. With empathy, we can understand and comfort others, especially those we perceive as being in our social unit, when we sense they’ve had a recent loss or emotional disturbance or simply need comfort or assistance.
Lawyers use these empathic skills to decide what story to tell on behalf of their clients, to excel at jury selection, to anticipate the strategy of our opponents, to accurately assess how witnesses will react to cross-examination, to discern how clients will hold up in depositions or at trial, and to help craft the most persuasive opening statements and closing arguments.
In other words, the ability to read the minds of others means we have to spend a lot of time in the minds of others. And from this fact of life for trial lawyers and advocates, we learn and practice empathy all the time.
Stretch for your own good
This brings us back to pro bono work.
As you provide a valuable service to your community and to the legal profession’s standing in your community, and as you provide important assistance to those who deserve full legal representation but are without
resources, what better place than pro bono work to learn all kinds of practice skills and knowledge you’d normally never encounter in your chosen area of practice?
As most lawyers know, pro bono work, court appointments, and other kinds of work you do for free or for low pay help round you out as a lawyer and inevitably becomes valuable later in your career as you work on higher-paying cases.
For decades, I worked representing tribal schools and tribal organizations at a reduced hourly rate because those clients couldn’t afford my full hourly rate. As a result, I learned and now rely greatly on enhanced skills I gained through that representation.
Those are skills in contracts, personnel issues, administrative law, construction law, and evictions. That’s not to mention federal Indian law, constitutional law, client counseling and board dynamics, mediation skills, and trial advocacy skills.
That’s the self-interest aspect of pro bono. Even more rewarding is how meaningful your pro bono work will be to your clients. Imagine knowing you’ve been treated wrongly but are unable to do anything about it because you’re powerless.
Thus, pro bono work becomes a mutual exchange. Clients gain from our involvement, but we’re also gaining from our involvement with them. You don’t need to represent many needy clients before your own hubris begins to wear away, replaced by an empowering humility and ability to role reverse or empathize with almost anyone.
This opens up the world—for you and for your client. Sometimes, when clients have an empowering experience with a true advocate, and with all the very human exchanges during the course of representation, especially in the two-way learning that’s taking place, neither the client nor the lawyer can ever go back to the way things were. They’ve now both become different people as a result of the exchange.
This creates growth in the client and ultimately in your community. It also creates important human and professional development for you as a lawyer.
And it commands a great deal of respect for the legal profession.
Ultimately, the experience of pro bono work leads to a more human and interconnected world. That’s a world we all desire at some level, even if that desire is closely held around the safe but cynical social layers in our profession.
Take the risk of possibly appearing to be a fool. It will bring vast rewards over the life of your career.