1. Stay on point.
You should have clear goals for why you are taking a pro bono commitment. Is it to fulfill a pro bono contribution goal of the law firm, to improve your client communication skills, to get exposure to a certain practice area, or gain recognition? Many important reasons to take pro bono cases go beyond the classic “to give back” essence of every pro bono commitment. Identify the one to three reasons you are taking on a pro bono commitment and write them down. Refer to them regularly, to make sure you are still on track to meet your goals around that commitment. If resentment creeps in, the goals can remind you what the payoff is, and help you reality-check if you are reaching them.
2. Match the work to the projected goal.
When volunteering for pro bono opportunities, ask questions such as: How long does a typical case take? What is the monthly or annual hourly expectation? Will I be expected to accept a case from beginning to end, or is this limited advice and/or representation? What is the usual difficulty level of the case? Many pro bono commitments require less than five hours per month and exclude full representation of the client, such as a neighborhood legal clinic, where you triage cases and give basic advice on filling out a particular form or next steps in a pro se appearance. Keep track of your time, even for pro bono, to ensure that you are reaching your goals, the organization’s goals, and you are not exceeding them greatly.
3. Take ideal pro bono clients.
It’s a common refrain to hear about smart client selection and saying no to paying clients that don’t fit your law firm. But this rarely comes up in the pro bono context. Take some time to consider what makes an ideal pro bono client for you. Is it someone with a cause you are passionate about? What level of education and understanding do you prefer? How do the pro bono client’s goals fit into the mission and vision of the firm? Some lawyers take the pro bono cases that walk in the door, but there is an added value to working with an organization because it offers systems, structure, support, and verification that the client is a good fit for the program. The organization will screen cases for eligibility and sometimes merit and offer a second opinion on a case and client by someone who has seen many similar cases.
4. Communicate with your chosen nonprofit.
If a case mushrooms beyond the goal, ask for help. Sometimes pro bono organizations can assign more than one lawyer to a case or help with certain aspects of the case. And learn from it. Sometimes a commitment does not pan out as planned. Do not give up on pro bono all together based on one bad experience. Reality-check your work on the case, to make sure you are working it efficiently and effectively. Ask the nonprofit contact if this is normal and how you can better manage the case. Decide whether cases like this are a good match, and next time either adjust the goal or avoid the cases that do not fit the goal.
5. Use pro bono cases to fill knowledge gaps.
It should be no secret that many pro bono programs have brilliant lawyers heading them up, who will teach the substantive and procedural steps to work the case. Instructing lawyers on how to manage a case is a way to multiply the power of one mind. In turn, organizations that build programs with this in mind hire lawyers who are natural-born teachers, give them time to mentor new lawyers, and training on how to be successful in leadership. In other words, if you have a knowledge gap you want filled that fits a unique practice area, find a nonprofit that offers this level of support in an area you are interested in learning. And even if you are doing a pro bono case that you find you wouldn’t want to practice in, you can learn client communication and management skills, case planning and organization skills, and writing and deliverable preparation skills that are frequently transferable to a client base you do want to work with. In addition, you are that much closer to understanding what your true interests are.
6. Show up and do great work.
No matter how free the representation is, it still must be zealous and ethical. There is a myth that pro bono cases are easy cases. Certainly, some programs offer that—case types are vetted and because demand is so high only winning cases will likely qualify and result in representation. Some commitments also are lighter than others. Legal clinics are often triaging and talking people through a discrete issue. Other programs and cases are very difficult, time-consuming, ground-breaking, deeply engrossing, and rewarding. Again, match the commitment to the goal, because something is out there for everyone.
7. Double down to improve your professional reputation and reach.
Once you find an organization or leader you really like to work with, make a point to say you are available for more. Offer to write an article, do a media appearance on behalf of the organization, fundraise with them. The relationships you develop here can become invaluable in the future—meaningful connections that will stand the test of time and benefit you professionally. Building a network through pro bono work gives a solid foundation for a deeper relationship than a networking event.
8. Look for clear business development opportunities.
Some organizations offering legal aid will informally refer to you, when contacted by a client who doesn’t qualify for their services, for example. Others have formal referral programs and limited scope or “low bono” offerings that you can join, and get paying clients referred to you. Some panels require a certain level of experience, a fee to join or a fee share arrangement, and/or an agreement to do the consultation at a reduced or set rate. With referral services, you may or may not have a pro bono requirement, but usually volunteering with the organization will make you known to those making the referrals, and may increase the number or fit of referrals you get.
9. Shout your good works from the rooftops.
This is the most important, most often-forgotten part. When you and other lawyers in the firm do pro bono events and activities, ask them to take pictures and write a story about their experience. Put that story on your website, offer it to other organizations and publications. If anyone at the firm gets an award or recognition for pro bono, celebrate that success on social media and the website, far and wide.
Some firms hide their pro bono involvement because they are afraid it will open a floodgate of needy pro bono clients. But in doing so, they give up a premium marketing opportunity. Prepare a policy that says something like “We are deeply committed to the communities we serve and offer on average, double the pro bono hours per year of most immigration firms. However, we only take pro bono cases through X and Y organization, after clients have qualified through the organization’s such and such program. To apply for pro bono services, contact X or Y at ABC.” Put this on your website and teach your staff to explain it with confidence. Taking pro bono on the fly is usually outside the budget and plan, so the benefit would need to be apparent and approved.
So, talk about the pro bono you do with others. Promote not just the work you do for money, but the good work you do for no money because it shows your depth of character and commitment. Build your reputation as a committed and intelligent lawyer who makes time for indigent clients, as well as paying clients, and the rest will follow. It will do great things for your firm culture and moral, too.
10. Honor your passion.
Occasionally, I will talk with lawyers who are struggling to stay afloat because they are so passionate about the pro bono work, they do not have time to do the paying client work. This isn’t a bad thing. This may feel like a point of failure, but it is far from it. This is an inflection point with a choice to make. Consider whether legal aid is a better career path for you instead of private practice. Consider whether your for-profit firm should be a new nonprofit organization. Passion is passion—do not fight it. Find a way to make it your full-time job. If it is the dream, make a plan to transition to that work one hundred percent of the time.
About the Author
Charity Anastasio is a practice management advisor for the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Practice & Professionalism Center. Contact her on Twitter @charityanas.