Professional Development

A Cynic’s Guide to Pro Bono Work

By | Oct.04.11 | Daily Dispatch, Learning, Legal Careers, Networking

Anyone who knows me knows I haven’t figured out what I want to be when I grow up. I just haven’t found that single passion to follow. Another thing: I was described as “old and cynical” when I was only 26. So, why listen to anything I have to say about pro bono work? Because no one will tell you how it really is like a cynic.

Why Pro Bono Work Is the Best Work You’ll Ever Do

There are plenty of lawyers just like me—cynical and still searching. And plenty of them are doing fabulous, fulfilling and worthwhile pro bono work. You don’t have to have entered law school expecting to save the world, and you don’t need to have an unyielding passion to do good to do good. You simply have to get out there and sign on. Here’s why pro bono work is worth your while.

  • Great experience. Paying clients generally don’t like you learning on their dime. When I was a new lawyer, I took on a pro bono landlord-tenant issue for a friend. That case ended up being my very first bench trial, and the cross examination of the crooked landlord was the most fun possible in a courtroom. My bosses were thrilled that I gained valuable litigation experience that the firm could promote to existing clients. I was no longer a “green” newbie but an experienced trial attorney! Through the years, I have seen other junior attorneys take on much more responsibility in pro bono matters than they would otherwise be given for a paying clients.
  • Career transition and on-the-job training. Pro bono cases can also take you out of the rut of your speciality. Who says a tax attorney can’t be a Court Appointed Special Advocate? As it turns out, that experience actually makes for a better tax attorney. A sole practitioner friend in Phoenix sums it up nicely: “Pro bono work is rewarding in many ways, some of them unexpected. It reminds you how lucky you are in these tough economic times. It gives you a sense of purpose to help those less fortunate than you. And it helps you develop or hone skills you never thought you had. I’ve gone from a very specialized (environmental) lawyer to a general civil litigation one, with a new focus on sports law and the golf industry. So the pro bono work has really paid off for me.”
  • Networking and business development. These days, some of my more challenging clients are recent bar passers who are new to the location. They don’t usually have a network of friends or classmates, so getting involved in pro bono work is a great way for them to meet other attorneys and, eventually, get referrals. Volunteer work exposes you to a whole network of lawyers and others you may not otherwise meet. (You know, those classmates who really did go to law school to save the world.) Not only will you get satisfaction from the worthwhile work, you will expand your network and referral base. One senior attorney told me that, to his surprise, his greatest source of referrals has been from an organization he began volunteering with as a new lawyer.
  • It’s just fun! So working without getting paid isn’t your idea of fun? Don’t knock it until you try it. Pro bono work is a great way to spread your wings and get out of your normal routine. It’s a good idea for all the reasons above and you may have fun along the way. The people you’ll meet, the knowledge you’ll gain and the gratification you’ll receive will make it fun. You might even discover that you actually do have a passion to do good.

Oh, the crooked landlord from my first bench trial? After the judge decided in my clients favor, the landlord called to ask if I would be his lawyer—an invitation I politely declined.

Julie Carroll is the owner of Carroll Career Consulting. Previously, she established the Center for Professional Development at Phoenix School of Law and nearly doubled the size of the largest law firm in the Rocky Mountain west as the Director of Professional Recruitment and Development at Holland & Hart LLP from 1999 until 2006. With more than 20 years’ experience as a judicial clerk, lawyer, legal recruiter and career coach she has counseled countless lawyers and law students along their career paths. She can be reached at

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