How Pro Bono Work Can Enhance
Your For-Profit Career
By Janet H. Moore
Why do most lawyers go to law school? Perhaps they want a career with intellectual challenge, excitement and a good income. Chances are that, at least in part, they also want to help other people.
Most lawyers take on pro bono assignments because they genuinely want to help others who need, but cannot afford, good legal services. However, once the notorious “golden handcuffs” of legal practice take hold, many attorneys find it increasingly hard to make time for pro bono work. They feel consumed by the pressure to bill hours, develop clients and keep up with legal trends. As a result, despite good intentions, many lawyers gradually abandon their pro bono projects.
Yet, pro bono work is critically important—to society, to the legal profession, and to lawyers. If your pro bono work has eroded with time, try to reframe the way you think about it. Focusing on the many ways that pro bono work can enhance your career may encourage you to carve out some enriching pro bono time.
Develop New Skills
Pro bono work helps attorneys develop new skills and stay professionally challenged. For example, litigators can gain coveted courtroom experience through pro bono assignments or hone collaborative skills by representing parties pro bono in collaborative divorces.
Lawyers can also learn trademark and copyright law by representing starving artists through organizations like the Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts.1 As the Internal Revenue Service increasingly scrutinizes non-profit organizations, some attorneyshave become volunteer ethics advisors to non-profits; by developing this skill, they are better positioned for future paid employment as ethics advisors for other non-profits and charitable foundations.
Marcy Kurtz, a partner at Bracewell Giuliani LLP who also serves as her firm’s pro bono coordinator, explained that pro bono work often gives attorneys invaluable “responsibility they might not get as quickly or frequently when representing ‘for profit’ clients.” Doing so also gives a lawyer a taste of “the risks and rewards attendant to the role of being the attorney in charge.”
J. Bruce McDonald, a partner in the Washington office of Jones Day and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, feels that pro bono work enhanced his trial skills. As a young associate in the Houston office of Baker Botts LLP, McDonald wanted more time in the courtroom. So he took on pro bono cases in the Harris County courts, representing a new range of clients, his first “a well-meaning but little-educated and unemployed former drug addict.”
McDonald got to prepare witnesses, pick a jury, and proceed with trial. He gained not only important courtroom savvy, but also valuable insight: “Pro bono work highlighted for me what a different legal world most litigants, judges, and juries experience than that in which antitrust defendants and their big firm lawyers live.”
Explore Career Transition
Perhaps you are dissatisfied with your current legal work and long to transition to a new practice area. If so, consider learning about a new practice area through pro bono work. Attorneys who think that they want to represent foreign clients on international matters could take on pro bono immigration cases; doing so will teach the lawyer whether he or she really enjoys working with clients from other cultures. Similarly, litigators who want to explore a business practice can get some practical experience though pro bono projects.
Sometimes volunteer work can lead an attorney to change career paths significantly. Many years ago, John Meredith began working with at-risk youth through a Houston Young Lawyers Association project known as the Aspiring Youth Program – a program that Meredith and Texas Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright had started. Meredith became so motivated to help at-risk youth that he founded and became the president and general counsel of Aspiring Youth of Houston. After leading this non-profit for almost ten years, he wanted to return to law – but not to a traditional practice. Meredith now combines his business acumen and legal experience as the business director for Greenberg Traurig, LLP’s Houston office.
How do you distinguish yourself in a crowded legal field? You might ask yourself what your clients think of you, or in other words, what is your “personal brand.” Perhaps your personal brand includes characteristics like punctuality or thoroughness. Do these traits really set you apart from other attorneys? What if your personal brand included characteristics like selflessness, dedication to serving others or servant leadership? If those appeal to you, then pro bono work can help.
Find a pro bono niche that matches your interests and skills. If you find the right niche, you will feel energized and fulfilled, and you will be more likely to stick with it.
Thomas Kline, a partner in Andrews Kurth LLP’s Washington office, was motivated to help families recover artwork stolen from them during the Holocaust. The book Goldberg’s Angel and other media coverage memorialized his efforts. Kline’s work in the stolen art market has also helped to “brand” him as a determined trial lawyer – and an interesting person – who takes on challenges (especially in the stolen art field) against tough odds.
Distinguishing oneself through pro bono work can also enhance a lawyer’s career path. For example, Ben Pruett, former counsel in the tax practice group at King & Spalding LLP’s Atlanta office (and husband to former Baker Botts Houston associate Molly Rice Pruett), created a training program to help volunteer attorneys draft pro bono wills and related documents. Pruett’s training program for the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer’s Foundation became a model for similar programs benefiting Habitat for Humanity homeowners and in-house pro bono initiatives by The Coca-Cola Company and UPS. The training program and materials have since been “exported” to other Bar groups in Florida, New York, and other areas.
Pruett’s volunteer efforts helped to brand him as an estate planning expert, and as a result, several private family wealth management groups began to court him. He now helps affluent clients of Bessemer Trust structure their estates.
Many lawyers build their practices through referrals from other lawyers. However, any lawyer chained to a desk finds it hard to network with other attorneys. Pro bono opportunities, like the HBA’s LegalLine, allow lawyers to connect with each other while providing pro bono assistance. This networking can help an attorney obtain referrals, build rapport with peers, and even look for a new job.
Some attorneys, including those aspiring to positions in the Bar’s leadership or on the Bench, have made invaluable contacts through pro bono interests. Many of Houston’s most prominent CEOs, CFOs and General Counsels actively volunteer for local charities that serve the poor. Many attorneys have enjoyed and benefited from knowing such executives through their pro bono work.
Increase Personal Satisfaction and Obtain Perspective
When an attorney begins to feel disillusioned by the practice of law, pro bono work often restores meaning to the attorney’s practice. Because the legal system and legal jargon can intimidate disenfranchised citizens, even simple and easy pro bono efforts can make a huge difference. For example, calling an uncooperative landlord or credit agency on behalf of a low income client can improve a client’s life in a matter of minutes.
Shawn Raymond, a partner with Susman Godfrey LLP, has always derived great personal satisfaction from helping others. Raymond described one dramatic case in which his litigation experience significantly helped a foster family. Child Protective Services had taken custody of a boy after his parents sent him to school with notes to his teacher physically stapled to his back. CPS placed the child in foster care, and although the foster family had custody of the boy for only 48 hours, the birth parents sued the foster family, in addition to CPS and other agencies.
The distraught foster parents feared that they would be prevented from being foster parents in the future—their life mission for 20 years. They had even drafted and filed their own Answer in an attempt to protect themselves. Raymond and others from his firm had to battle with opposing counsel to get the suit against the foster parents dismissed, but ultimately he rejoiced in his victory for the foster parents: “You can’t replicate that feeling,” he noted.
Pro bono work also puts lawyers’ professional woes in perspective. Somehow not making partner or having a case thrown out does not seem quite so important when an attorney has kept a family from eviction, saved someone’s life on death row, or obtained a protective order for a battered spouse.
Please Judges, Juries and Clients
Harry Reasoner, the former managing partner of Vinson & Elkins LLP, explained how many years ago Judge Singleton appointed him to represent prison inmates in a class action against the Texas Department of Corrections. The suit raised a variety of First Amendment issues arising when the TDC read inmates’ correspondence to their lawyers, among other infractions. Over a 20-year period, Vinson & Elkins attorneys tried three related cases, giving the attorneys valuable courtroom experience and creating goodwill with the judiciary. As Reasoner noted, “Judges appreciate lawyers and law firms that are willing to contribute to the social good.”
All attorneys can get valuable experience interacting with clients through pro bono projects. Pro bono projects let them polish their client communication skills and gain confidence. Teaming up with more seasoned attorneys on a pro bono project is also a great way to get performance feedback without directly impacting an attorney’s career.
Marcy Kurtz explained that many corporate clients are pleased by her firm’s significant pro bono commitment. “Most of our corporate clients are excellent corporate citizens, giving back to the communities in which they do business both with dollars and with human resources. They expect the same of their inner circle of service providers. We deliver.”
Kurtz also noted that many corporate clients ask their outside law firm for help with the clients’ pro bono assignments, perceiving that they will do a better job if an outside law firm assists them. “It’s a win/win situation for everyone: the corporate client of the firm, the law firm, the individuals from both the corporate client and the law firm who get to work together on the project and, most importantly, the person receiving legal services.”
Attorneys wanting to take on pro bono projects have a wealth of options available.2 Under the State Bar’s guidelines, legal work for charitable or public service organizations qualifies as pro bono if it is “with respect to matters or projects designed predominantly to address the needs of poor persons.”3
Why not take on some pro bono work? The benefits can be significant, and the personal satisfaction is priceless
Janet H. Moore
is an experienced lawyer who works as
a professionally trained executive
coach for lawyers. She helps lawyers with customized rainmaking, branding, and career strategies. Janet sits on the editorial board of The Houston Lawyer Magazine.
1. http://www.talarts.org/ 2. The Houston Bar Association’s Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program (713-228-0735, www.hvlp.org), State Bar of Texas, Texas Lawyers Care (512- 427-1855) and American Bar Association (800-285-2221) all have departments waiting to assign pro bono projects. TexasLawyersHelp.org also lists many pro bono matters. 3. State Bar of Texas Pro Bono Policy FAQ (2006). More Information is available through the State Bar of Texas Web site, www.texasbar.com.
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