Before the pandemic, law firm pro bono was important. A recent report noted firms contributed nearly 5 million hours in 2019. During the pandemic and the host of legal issues it brought—from workplace health and safety to housing evictions to early prison releases—law firm pro bono became critical. In answering the questions below, two distinguished members of Berkeley Law’s faculty provide insight for law firm pro bono leaders creating relevant programs to attract graduates eager to use their degrees to help people most affected by the consequences of COVID-19.
Deborah Schlosberg (DS), director of the Pro Bono Program at Berkeley Law, maintained a robust pro bono practice at Arnold & Porter LLP that was primarily focused on state-wide school funding litigation.
Q: Do law students still believe law firm pro bono programs are important and a factor in deciding where they want to practice law?
DS: At Berkeley Law, we teach our students that engaging in pro bono work is their professional responsibility. Our students take this commitment seriously with over 90% of them engaging in pro bono work while at Berkeley Law. They seek to continue this commitment when they join a law firm and often have developed skills and a passion for a particular field of pro bono work by the time they graduate. A firm that similarly values access to justice will be more competitive in attracting our students.
TG: The current generation of law students (at least ours) is deeply concerned with larger societal issues (racial justice, inequality, climate change, and environmental sustainability) and expect their professional work (and their employers) to be a force for positive change. For that reason, a firm’s commitment to providing pro bono legal services is as important as ever to their career decision-making. It’s a reflection of a firm’s values and culture.
Q: How has the pandemic changed law students and law firms thinking about pro bono programs?
DS: Our students continued to engage in pro bono work throughout the pandemic—the delivery of services did change and our students learned how to serve clients remotely. I think the area that changed with respect to thinking for students was who they could work with—the geographic boundaries of the Bay Area disappeared and our students were able to engage in pro bono work from wherever they were with organizations across the country, from Louisiana to Michigan to the U.S./Mexico border.
TG: There was an appreciation for the unprecedented levels of need for pro bono services produced by the COVID pandemic and the resulting recession. Also, obviously, these services had to be provided remotely. Beyond that, I don’t know and couldn’t say that COVID changed student/law firm thinking about pro bono programs.
Q: What pro bono innovations have evolved over the pandemic?
TG: I cannot think of any innovations relating to the provision of pro bono services (other than the obvious switch from in-person to remote), but I do know that firms created new types of pro bono programs to meet the unique demands of the pandemic (and the ensuing recession). Some engaged with the prison population on improving testing for incarcerated individuals, or obtaining compassionate release (for some). Others worked on behalf of immigrants to enhance protections for those detained by ICE. Still, others assisted small businesses in accessing CARES Act funding that helped keep them afloat.
DS: The big innovation was serving clients remotely—developing ways to connect with clients by zoom/phone and integrating systems that protected the privacy of client confidential information.
About the Author
Nick Gaffney is founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco and a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @nickgaffney.