The Role Of Pro Bono In Junior Attorney Training And Development

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 00:00

The importance of pro bono work in our society is indisputable. There is a desperate need for legal services in underserved communities, and continued government cut-backs in financial support for legal services organizations only exacerbate the problem. The private bar has long had an obligation to step in on a pro bono basis and fill some of the void by taking on legal work that benefits the poor.

In addition to the public need that pro bono work helps satisfy, however, a direct, personal benefit flows to the lawyers who volunteer their services. Particularly in large law firms, junior associates may not have direct responsibility for a client's matter for many years. They may handle research, document review, and secondary roles in motion practice or brief-writing. This can be a frustrating dilemma for the associates as well as their firms. On the one hand, no senior attorney will feel comfortable delegating an important task to an associate who has not had the experience and proven his or her ability to perform it; on the other, the associate has limited opportunity to get that experience early on with the typical client matters to which he or she is staffed. Enter, pro bono.

In light of both the need for increased pro bono services and the desirability of offering junior associates more hands-on work experiences, our firm (which has long had a robust commitment to pro bono) instituted its first-year associate pro bono program several years ago, requiring all new associates to handle at least one solo pro bono matter during their first year at the firm.

When our new class of associates begins work in September, the new lawyers spend a week in an intensive training program - the Proskauer Institute. They take classes in skills related to their practice area, such as due diligence workshops, overviews of pleadings and discovery, mock closings, as well as programs designed to help them learn how to adjust to law firm life, such as the structure and economics of the firm, practice management, and communication skills. Shortly after the Proskauer Institute, the new associates hear presentations from several pro bono referral agencies offering different types of matters. They then indicate their preference for their initial pro bono assignment.

The first-year pro bono program is closely managed. We make sure the types of matters the firm takes on are ones that very new attorneys can realistically handle on their own with limited supervision. Although experienced attorneys act as supervisors and mentors, we expect the first-year associate to be the "first chair." We have worked over the years with the same group of legal services organizations and have developed an understanding with them about the kinds of matters we want our new attorneys to handle. In addition, each of the organizations offers training programs in the types of matters we take on - and often will conduct the training in our offices - making it convenient for our associates to get up to speed quickly on their assignments.

Our new associates are assigned to specific practice departments when they start work, and different types of pro bono assignments are available to litigating attorneys and transactional attorneys, respectively. All first-year associates are, however, able to choose a pro bono assignment from any of the types of matters we offer. That way, for example, a corporate associate who might want to put a toe in the waters of litigation can do so through a pro bono assignment without making a commitment to work full-time as a litigator.

We offer a fairly wide range of assignments. For example, in our New York office, we offer:

•Social security disability benefit appeals: Referred by the Legal Aid Society, these matters present wonderful opportunities to teach associates how to marshal evidence and prepare for and conduct a hearing before an administrative law judge. Associates need to be tenacious in tracking down the relevant information, interviewing the clients, presenting the arguments in a written submission, as well as preparing and examining witnesses during a hearing. Beginning litigators find these matters challenging and extremely educational. In addition, because they bring such direct and immediate help to a person in need, they offer the associate great personal satisfaction. As one of our associates described when discussing her first-year case:

"Immediately after my first week at Proskauer, I, along with all first-year associates, was assigned my own pro bono case. I was given the independence to meet with the client, gather the evidence and interview and prepare witnesses. Within a few months of starting at the Firm, I presented an appeal of a denial of Social Security disability benefits at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. This pro bono experience was not only challenging, it was tremendously rewarding - the client still calls me each month with excitement and enthusiasm, just to let me know that her Social Security disability check has arrived!"

•Immigration and family law assistance to victims of domestic violence: Through the auspices of Sanctuary for Families, we handle a variety of matters helping women who are victims of domestic violence. One is the immigration program in which we help women who have been abused and are married to U.S. citizens or permanent residents and are themselves seeking to petition for permanent residency. The work includes extensive client and witness interviewing and preparing detailed affidavits and other documentation to submit to the immigration authorities. These matters offer the associates a meaningful opportunity to help someone in great need. They also help train the associate in skills related to interviewing clients, gathering and developing facts and evidence, and preparing documentation for filing. Another type of matter we handle with Sanctuary is representing domestic violence victims in support, custody, and visitation matters, as well as securing orders of protection. Handling a substantive court appearance is not something most junior associates will otherwise do early in their first year of practice, so these matters present the associates a unique opportunity to practice courtroom skills shortly after they join the firm.

•Adoption appeals: This program, through the Legal Aid Society, offers associates the opportunity to represent the Law Guardian of a child in foster care who is ready to be adopted by his or her foster family. The representation entails opposing an appeal of an order by the Family Court that terminated parental rights, the successful result of which would free the child for adoption. The associates get experience reading and organizing a record on appeal, conducting research, and drafting an entire appellate brief on their own. As one of our first-year associates attests:

"I recently submitted a brief on behalf of the Law Guardian of two children on the appeal by the biological father contesting a Family Court order terminating his parental rights. Almost a decade ago, the father had pled guilty to manslaughter charges stemming from the death of his infant son from malnutrition and dehydration. His two older surviving children were placed in foster care following the father's incarceration. While in prison, the father received a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation and was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. The father's parental rights were terminated based on his mental illness and the likelihood that the illness would cause him to neglect or abuse his children in the future.

"It was thrilling working on something so important for two young children that would have an immediate impact on their lives. Most recently, we received the Appellate Division's decision unanimously affirming the order terminating the father's parental rights. The children are now finally freed to be adopted by the foster mother with whom they have been living.

"Working on this adoption appeal was one of the most instructive experiences I have had at the Firm as a first-year associate. The chance to have almost total control over the style, shape, and direction of a brief is rare for young lawyers, and the guidance from within the Firm and from the experienced attorneys at Legal Aid was invaluable."

•Transactional matters: Through Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Proskauer first-year associates have helped hundreds of arts organizations become established as not-for-profit entities with tax exempt status. Many of these associates have also become involved in helping their clients after the initial legal work required to create and organize an entity has been completed, sometimes serving on their boards of directors, and sometimes acting as general counsel. These matters have been very well-received by our transactional associates who enjoy having such direct, hands-on involvement with a client requiring corporate, tax, and business counseling early on. As one corporate first-year associate stated:

"Representing my VLA client has been both rewarding and educational. It is wonderful to work with a client who is so passionate about the project and so appreciative of the help. It truly inspires you to work hard and well for someone when the work is so important to them personally and they are so responsive to the fact that you are volunteering your time to assist them in realizing their passion. As a corporate lawyer in a big firm, I also enjoyed the opportunity to represent the type of artistic organization with which I might not otherwise be involved. Most importantly from a professional standpoint, representing pro bono clients provides a great opportunity to take on more responsibility and do more substantive work than is usually available to younger associates such as myself."

The first-year pro bono program serves many interrelated purposes at our firm. It gives sorely needed legal assistance to clients in need who cannot afford to pay. It enables junior attorneys to handle the types of assignments they might not otherwise have the opportunity to take on in a "first-chair" capacity for some time. It also gives the associates self-confidence and a feeling of great personal satisfaction. Finally, it helps instill in new attorneys the firm's values about the importance of working on pro bono matters. It is our hope that the first-year program will be the tip of the iceberg and that by exposing new lawyers early on to the benefits of working with pro bono clients, we will instill in them a commitment to pro bono work for the rest of their careers.

Anita J. Zigman, a former litigator, is Director of Associate Affairs at Proskauer Rose LLP and Chair of the Professional Development Consortium, a group of professional development directors of law firms and legal departments.

Please email the author at azigman@proskauer.com with questions about this article.