Vol. 34, No. 7
Departments and More
Access to Justice
Getting Something for Nothing: Pro Bono is an Investment That Pays
by Taylor Pendergrass
Taylor Pendergrass is an associate attorney at Stone, Rosen, Byrne & Benjamin, P.C. in Boulder, Colorado, and vice-president of the National Lawyers Guild—(303) 442-0802; firstname.lastname@example.org. His practice focuses on public interest law, including civil and constitutional rights, consumer rights, employee rights, family law, and immigration.
Readers interested in contributing an article on legal services, pro bono, and access to justice topics should contact Kathleen Schoen at email@example.com.
For new attorneys, the biggest challenges often lie in the details they cannot learn in law school. Meeting new clients, developing advocacy skills, achieving proficiency in court procedure, and connecting with the legal community—all of these are vital to any lawyer’s practice, but must be learned or developed primarily through experience. The challenge for new attorneys is to get this experience and to get it quickly, constructively, and meaningfully. Pro bono volunteering provides such an opportunity, allowing new attorneys to fulfill their professional charge to provide equal access to justice for all and, at the same time, offering them a wealth of priceless experience, skills, and knowledge.
Have You Ever Been Experienced?
Regardless of where new attorneys find themselves working, initially, they often are limited to practicing in whatever niche they are able to carve out for themselves (or is carved out for them). Consequently, new attorneys may find themselves focused on just a few small facets of the law. One clear benefit of pro bono work is that it allows new attorneys to gain experience in different practice areas.1 For many, the opportunity to explore new legal territory and possibly identify future specialties and practice areas is truly unique. Especially for lawyers in big or specialized firms whose work is often concentrated and narrowly focused, pro bono work offers an unparalleled opportunity to work in different areas of the law.2
Furthermore, with the staff of legal services organizations available to offer assistance or to recommend mentors, pro bono volunteers have an ideal environment for exploration, with plenty of support and guidance. The mentoring relationship not only can help new attorneys understand the law and procedure relating to their pro bono cases, but also can benefit the new attorney long after the pro bono representation has ended.
For new lawyers who are certain about their chosen area of practice, the chance to work in different areas of the law still offers many rewards. For example, although a new attorney may not be interested in practicing as a tenant’s rights lawyer, the skills he or she learns while negotiating for a client facing eviction are applicable in any area of the law. Judge Carol Glowinsky, Boulder District Court, notes: "Low income clients present the same breadth and complexity of legal issues as anyone else. Therefore, legal skills undoubtedly improve by working on these cases and taking advantage of the mentoring provided to those who accept pro bono cases."3
Accordingly, new attorneys helping pro bono clients have the chance to develop a wide range of general advocacy skills, such as negotiation, interaction, and communication with clients; time management; and dealing with ethical issues. For new attorneys at medium or large law firms, the opportunity to learn any skill other than legal writing may be limited. Pro bono work allows new attorneys to develop a full range of advocacy skills early in their careers, building a foundation that will last throughout their lives as practicing lawyers.
Brave New Legal World
In addition to learning about the substance of the law, new attorneys representing pro bono clients also have the chance to develop their knowledge of courtroom practice and procedure. Knowledge of the Rules of Civil Procedure is critical for new attorneys (even those who do not often see the inside of the courtroom). Many new lawyers may remember dozing through civil procedure classes in law school, but can rest assured it is most efficiently and effectively learned through actual practice.
Moreover, along with the Rules of Civil Procedure, new attorneys must become acquainted with the many local court rules and practices. A thorough understanding of these local rules is essential and also is best gained through actual practice. New attorneys performing pro bono work can learn these rules better and faster than those learning them on paper and, in the process, gain the respect of the court and win more cases for their clients.
Another key benefit of pro bono work for the new attorney is the opportunity to get to know the people who make the courtroom work, such as court clerks, reporters, interpreters, facilitators, magistrates, and judges. No price can be put on the value of building a working relationship with court staff for new attorneys. They will need help with their questions and seek the understanding and assistance of court staff to rectify those unavoidable early mistakes.
Pro bono representation also affords new attorneys the opportunity to appear in front of different judges and magistrates, giving them an idea of the judge’s or magistrate’s style, demeanor, and expectations. In turn, the court staff, magistrates, and judges have the chance to become familiar with a new face in the courtroom. "As a judge, I have taken special note of those attorneys who appear pro bono, particularly in challenging, ‘high maintenance’ cases," notes Judge Glowinsky. "These attorneys stand out in my mind because I recognize that they are providing an essential service to the courts and the community."4
Likewise, pro bono work gives new attorneys a chance to meet other attorneys. The advantage for new attorneys is twofold. First, interacting with opposing counsel can be a deceptively challenging endeavor for a new attorney. Pro bono work not only gives new attorneys the opportunity to practice this skill, but also exposes them to a variety of different styles they may use as touchstones in developing their own personal approach to relationships with opposing counsel.5 Second, pro bono work allows the new attorney to meet and develop professional relationships with other attorneys in their legal specialty, a more substantial and arguably more meaningful (not to mention palatable) version of "networking."
Growing Your Practice
Pro bono work helps new attorneys attain important long-terms goals, such as developing a gratifying and meaningful law practice with a robust and stable client base. New attorneys who give their time to pro bono clients will achieve such goals more quickly, for two reasons: first, as noted above, pro bono work gives new attorneys broader and more substantial legal experience early in their careers, allowing them to determine more readily the direction their practice should take to meet their personal desires and goals. Second, the skills developed by new attorneys while representing pro bono clients give them a competitive advantage over other new attorneys, a benefit that can last throughout their careers.
Additionally, pro bono representation can build an attorney’s practice by leading to new clients in a variety of ways. Clients who are represented pro bono often have friends or family looking to retain a private attorney, and the relationship formed during the pro bono representation makes those pro bono lawyers easy referrals for the original client. Furthermore, pro bono clients themselves often come back to their pro bono attorneys several months or years later as paying clients.
Opposing counsel met during the course of pro bono representation also can be a source of referrals. For example, while handling a family law matter pro bono, a new attorney may mention to opposing counsel that his or her private practice is primarily tax law. When that opposing counsel later has a client with a tax question, the new attorney may find himself or herself getting a new referral. Together, these benefits of pro bono volunteering help new attorneys build a reputation with clients, the court, and opposing counsel, while building their law practice.
All Colorado attorneys have made a personal pledge never to "reject . . . the cause of the defenseless or oppressed."6 Most attorneys take this vow seriously and recognize that pro bono and service work must be an integral and consistent part of their practice. However, new lawyers, often daunted in their first months or years of practice, sometimes fail to perform pro bono work because they feel unable to make time to provide effective assistance. Those who fail to take advantage of pro bono opportunities not only neglect their pledge to perform a necessary and rewarding legal service, but also pass up an unparalleled opportunity for professional development.
The reality is that pro bono work is a career investment with benefits that far outweigh the costs. New attorneys who understand that reality will fulfill the noblest charge of their profession, while becoming more competent and more effective in their practices. Such attorneys will have realized that pro bono work, although good for the soul, also is good for their law practice.
To become a pro bono volunteer, contact Colorado Legal Services at the office nearest you. For offices and contact numbers, visit http://www.coloradolegalservices.org and click on "Volunteer."
1. Colorado Legal Se
rvices, for example, offers volunteers the opportunity to work in consumer law, housing law, wills and estate law, government benefits, health law, immigration, employment law, Native American law, civil disputes, and family law. See the Colorado Legal Services website at http://www.coloradolegalservices.org.
2. For law students or attorneys planning to or already working at private firms, the American Bar Association publishes a helpful guide to assist applicants in analyzing the firm’s commitment to pro bono representation, including a list of sample interview questions. See "The Path to Pro Bono: An Interviewing Tool for Law Students," ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, available at http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/probono/home.html.
3. E-mail interview with Judge Carol Glowinsky, District Court, 20th Judicial District, who has been a judge for ten years (Feb. 23, 2005).
5. Additionally, the other party in pro bono cases often may be pro se, which presents a different but equally valuable educational experience for a new attorney, as dealing with pro se parties requires unique skills and demands rigorous ethical evaluation.
6. From the Colorado Attorney’s Oath of Admission, available at http://www.cobar.org/group/index.cfm?category=1653&EntityID=CETH.
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