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Recently, New York became the first state to require that law students perform 50 hours of pro bono work before they can be admitted to the bar. Plenty of bloggers have already chimed in on whether this is a good or bad idea. There’s little that I can add to that debate. But I like to remind lawyers that the benefits of performing pro bono work go well beyond feeling good about “doing the right thing.” Too few of us recognize that it can also yield substantial, practical economic benefits for ourselves, our organizations and our profession as a whole. When it comes to pro bono service, “it pays to be good.”
Pro bono means “for the public good.” Historically, the legal profession has felt a responsibility to ensure equal access to the legal system for all—in the hope that justice would not devolve into a commodity that was simply bought and sold. The pro bono responsibility is partially derived from a social contract between society and lawyers. Society provides an exclusive license to individuals who want to practice law, thereby opening the door to a lucrative career opportunity. In return, lawyers give back to society. What they give is pro bono service.
For the individual lawyer, handling a pro bono matter is an opportunity to enhance legal skills, either through learning a new skill or sharpening an existing one. In many pro bono cases, for example, lawyers represent clients from more diverse backgrounds than their usual clientele. Dealing with people from different socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds can improve sensitivity and communication skills.
Pro bono service also builds confidence for less-experienced attorneys, especially those who spend most of their time working in the shadow of senior partners. By regularly doing pro bono work, they begin to realize that they can autonomously assist others with legal problems.
Plus, pro bono service can expand an attorney’s personal network. This can be especially significant for those who are dissatisfied in their current jobs, or those who may find themselves unexpectedly unemployed, since the search for a new job will be easier with a bigger network in place.
Finally, doing pro bono service enhances your reputation within the firm or organization, within the profession and within the extended community. After all, what’s not to like about a person giving back to his or her community?
As a whole, firms with a strong pro bono culture benefit for a variety of reasons. For one, firm morale and cohesiveness improve when lawyers and staff are jointly devoted to a particular matter or cause—especially when it draws together individuals who don’t ordinarily work together. Some relationships can even develop into genuine mentoring opportunities.
In addition, a commitment to pro bono service often helps in recruiting new talent. Many skilled attorneys in private practice have a public-service orientation. So do the many recent law school graduates who are attracted to firms with a strong pro bono focus. And that competitive edge in recruiting also extends to retaining pro bono-oriented lawyers—avoiding turnover and its accompanying costs.
Law firms can also tout their commitment to pro bono work as part of marketing to new clients—including corporate clients that want to retain firms with an agenda broader than simply the highest profits-per-partner. There are many businesses with a strong culture of volunteerism that want to hire law firms that share that culture.
Moreover, firms seeking to cement already-existing client relationships can partner with their corporate clients to undertake pro bono projects. It strengthens the relationship as they work as a team in a new and different professional environment.
There is always room for improvement in the public’s confidence in the legal profession, and pro bono service is an important element in achieving that.
Let’s face it: Many lawyers fail to appreciate how good we really have it. Society grants lawyers a monopoly to provide a service—a service that enables many to gain prestige and earn a good living in their communities, subject only to self-regulation of the profession. However, the legitimacy of our legal system largely depends on the meaningful participation of all citizens. Pro bono service ensures such participation, thereby preserving the system’s legitimacy.
Pro bono service provides many practical economic benefits for attorneys, their organizations and their communities. Not only do you feel better when you help someone less fortunate, but you feel better because you will be helping yourself as well.
Roy S. Ginsburg is an attorney coach who works one-to-one in the areas of business development, practice management and career development. He has practiced law for more than 25 years in large to small firms and in a corporate setting. He is currently an active solo with a part-time practice in legal marketing ethics and employment law. Learn more about Roy at www.royginsburg.com.
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