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Pro Bono as Training for Attorneys

By Casey Burke and Lynna Moen

There are many wonderful reasons why attorneys engage in pro bono work. A robust pro bono practice not only greatly benefits low-income clients and the legal services organizations that serve them, but it also benefits attorneys from the private bar who take on pro bono representation. Pro bono attorneys report high levels of satisfaction, knowing that they played a significant role in helping another person who needed an attorney. It is often one of the most personally and professionally fulfilling parts of an attorney’s practice.

In discussing the benefits of pro bono practice, those of us working in the pro bono field often tout the training opportunities. Participating in pro bono allows attorneys the opportunity to expand their skills and explore beyond their comfort zones. Branching out into an unfamiliar area of law can be daunting, but it is an opportunity for immense professional growth as well. Additionally, for newer attorneys in large firms, pro bono can be a way for lawyers to obtain invaluable litigation experience – an opportunity that would likely not be available otherwise. Through pro bono, newer attorneys can appear and argue in court at any stage of their career, as well as develop important skills related to softer skills, such as client interaction and case strategy.

There is no question that the opportunity for training is an important reason for attorneys to engage in pro bono. It’s always one of the main reasons why many firms have chosen to institutionalize pro bono practice within their organizations. However, it is important to remember that providing the best possible representation to clients must always remain our first priority. A pro bono client who is unable to pay for their representation deserves, and under our ethical obligations as attorneys, must receive the same level of care and the same treatment as the highest-paying private corporate client.

How can we ensure this happens? How do we, as a legal community, promote pro bono as a wonderful training opportunity while still ensuring that pro bono clients receive the same level of care as any other paying client? The responsibility lies with everyone – the attorneys, the firms they work for, and the legal services organizations.

First, legal services organizations must ensure that volunteer attorneys are equipped and empowered to offer pro bono clients the best possible representation. For those of us accustomed to directly representing low-income clients, it’s easy to take some things for granted. We have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours talking to clients, walking them through their cases step by step. We recognize that we represent a very vulnerable client base who often lack the means, resources, or ability to fight for themselves. We are trained to recognize that our clients often have many legal needs – some imminent, some more long-term, as well as needs that run deeper than an isolated legal problem. Often, our clients come to us with multi-faceted and even multi-generational barriers and challenges. As such, we are trained to recognize that we not only need to represent our clients in their legal matter to the best of our ability, but we must also see the client’s needs holistically, and empower our clients to make their own decisions. When we assign a case to a pro bono volunteer, it is imperative that this training and understanding be fully relayed as well. We must provide training and mentorship that teaches the law, but also that fosters this approach to client relationships, so that our pro bono volunteers who may not have the privilege of representing our clients day in and day out can enter into the client relationship with this expectation. So when we talk about training, developing skills, and developing professional relationships, let’s make sure our volunteer attorneys are given the tools to keep our clients’ needs at the forefront.

Likewise, law firms and corporate counsel offices that are asking attorneys to take on pro bono cases, and who view pro bono cases as excellent training opportunities, must ensure that they take steps to fully support the attorneys who choose to take on these cases. More senior attorneys must make themselves available for consultation, guidance, and mentorship to newer pro bono attorneys, in the same way that they would within their own chosen legal fields. And perhaps most importantly, firms and corporate counsel offices must demonstrate to their attorneys that the pro bono clients are just as important as paying clients. This must be done both in practice and in structuring the program. Firms and corporate counsel offices must take care to set up robust pro bono practices that allow attorneys to bill for their pro bono time, and must provide attorneys with as much latitude, training and time as they need to adequately take on a pro bono case.

With these safeguards in place, pro bono can indeed be the best possible training ground for lawyers looking to expand their skills or establish themselves within their firms. But before we send lawyers off to stand next to clients in some of the most important and life-altering times our clients may face, let’s all do our part to ensure those lawyers are prepared to do so.