Pro Bono Is Its Own Reward

Monday, August 1, 2011 - 01:00

Summer means many wonderful things - among them that I have the pleasure of working on The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel's Pro Bono Special Section. For the better part of July, we editors read up on nonprofits and pro bono programs; we speak with law firm partners whose pro bono clients include asylum seekers, death row inmates and abused children. We interview corporations whose legal departments actively engage in volunteer lawyer programs, and we hear from bar associations that initiate legal clinics for the underserved in their communities. In our pages - not only in this month's special section, but throughout the year - readers can find stories of lawyers changing people's lives by providing access to justice to the indigent, the marginalized, the oppressed.

In these times of incessant BlackBerry and iPhone connectedness, our virtual, self-selected networks have grown, while our sense of connection with our neighbors and those outside our immediate social circles has diminished. (Most likely, the senior who lives a mile away and is about to be unjustly evicted would never come up on our radar screen, while an IP specialist based in Jeddah is among our LinkedIn contacts.) Pro bono work broadens and deepens our sense of community. Organizations like Lawyers Alliance, Equal Justice Works, MFY and Pro Bono Partnership remind us that many people living just a stone's throw from our own homes are in desperate need of legal services.

The home mortgage crisis has left many people homeless or almost so; consequent foreclosures and evictions have created a market for substandard "three-quarter houses" and squalid and unsafe housing for many. Decreased state and federal funding across the board for social programs has led to crises among nonprofits trying to fill the gap, and they turn to pro bono providers for counsel on matters concerning, say, employment law, as well as tax issues that may arise as they seek alternative revenue streams for funding. Those already vulnerable before the recession - the elderly, the mentally ill - and their families are in need of legal counsel to stay in their homes and to continue to receive medical care or home assistance. Some of the pro bono practitioners featured in our pages have used their legal expertise in service of the global community, serving on international criminal tribunals and assisting in asylum cases - in some cases becoming personal friends with those whose lives they have helped transform. Whether closer to home or far afield, engagement in pro bono work reminds us that living on this planet is not a solo adventure - we are as interdependent as ever.

None of the inspiring people featured in our pages identify themselves as heroes - far from it. Listening to them speak, one hears their gratitude both for their ability to be of service to others and for representing clients who inspire them to do more. These lawyers will tell you that they gain as much - if not more - from their pro bono experiences as they give.There is nothing so fulfilling, they will say, as improving the life of one person in a dramatic way. A positive outcome ripples outward to a pro bono client's family; it rolls forward, to a client's future; and it reflects back, gratifying the heart of the pro bono practitioner.

There are other benefits to pro bono practice, too. In terms of professional development, pro bono work offers unparalleled opportunities for younger, less experienced attorneys. Having a client of one's own requires developing an attorney-client relationship; it entails taking initiatives and, at times, risks; it means having ownership and accountability. This kind of experience is invaluable, especially in large firms, where junior associates are unlikely to have much exposure to, let alone substantive dealings with, high-profile clients.

Pro bono work can also enhance collegiality within firms, improving morale and building foundations for collaboration down the road. And, many legal departments today undertake pro bono projects with outside counsel - the benefits for both sides being obvious in terms of relationship development. Furthermore, for in-house counsel, pro bono objectives can align with corporate objectives in ways that can produce sustainable and beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders. Our interview with Deirdre Stanley of Thomson Reuters recounts how its work with TrustLaw, an outstanding pro bono provider, does just that.

It's easy these days to find a pro bono project worth undertaking. A Google search of "pro bono" and your zip code will yield any number of pro bono organizations with offerings for every kind of attorney. (Pro bono - it's not just for litigation anymore!) Business lawyers, your skills are needed, now more than ever.

At the end of the day, a law degree is a privilege, and with it comes an obligation: to be servants of the legal system. Many of us came to the law for that very reason; some of us may have gotten waylaid in the 24/7 work cycle. Or perhaps our law school professors exhorted us to serve the public, and we've since become so immersed in our corporate legal practice that we forget our commitment to public service. Now more than ever, we must remember that access to justice is a fundamental right that we, as guardians of the justice system, are charged with providing.