The Value of Good Works: An Attorney’s Guide to Pro Bono
There is no doubt that the economy has greatly improved since the dark days of the Great Recession. Unemployment is down and the stock market is as impressive as ever. In light of the country’s recent success, it can be easy to forget about those who still haven’t recovered financially.
The American Bar Association has, for some time now, recommended 50 hours a year of pro bono legal work. While the gold standard of volunteering is full representation for the less fortunate, many attorneys also offer free legal advice, work with local charities drafting contracts or represent clients at a reduced cost.
Pro bono work is obviously valuable but can get complicated once firm logistics get involved. The Super Lawyers playbook Doing Good While Doing Well: A Road Map to Success with Pro Bono lays out a few simple steps to start a volunteer program at your firm.
Unfortunately, the ABA found that around 64 percent of lawyers fall short of their suggested 50 hours of volunteer legal services a year. Time is a constant strain, especially in small law firms where most attorneys wear more than one hat. However, there may be valuable trade-offs for law firms who are willing to sacrifice a few billable hours for pro bono work.
WHY IT’S WORTH IT
Law firms, like any other business, value efficiency. According to studies by the University of Georgia Terry College of Business, volunteering is linked to greater employee engagement, satisfaction and productivity. In 2013, the United Health Group stated that “people feel better emotionally, mentally and physically” by helping the less fortunate. Attorneys who volunteer their time may be more focused on their daily routine because of it.
Then there’s the extrinsic value of pro bono work. The ABA reports that around 13 percent of volunteer work comes from referrals. Through involvement in the community, you can build your professional network and reputation among your peers.
HOW YOU DO IT
Find A Cause
There is an overwhelming number of individuals and organizations that need free or reduced cost legal assistance. Get started by meeting with your firm’s leadership to whittle the numbers down and brainstorm common causes you can agree upon. Getting a group of people as headstrong as attorneys to agree on anything may be a tough ask, but if everyone is on the same page on how to spend their volunteer time it will encourage participation and teamwork.
Even in the best of times, there is no shortage of people who need legal assistance but lack the means or ability to access it. Your legal expertise puts you in a position to provide for both those who are less fortunate and the broader community you serve. The return on this investment may not be obvious and concrete, but with time and commitment, pro bono work does eventually contribute to the value of your law firm.
Everyone from the top down should understand exactly how important pro bono is to your firm and why. In the ABA survey of pro bono work, the majority of attorneys who completed 50 hours a year said that they were encouraged by partners and colleagues to volunteer. Create a culture of charity to help encourage all attorneys to participate and take steps as a business leader to make the occasional bit of volunteering easy to fit into your current workload.
No matter what profession, employees appreciate recognition, especially when something like volunteering suggests they’re going above and beyond their expected responsibilities. If pro bono is an important part of your law firm, showing public support for the attorneys who are giving their time through annual awards or even small email shout-outs will prove how seriously you take volunteering.
Understand The Expense
It’s a fact of life: Pro bono work can take the place of billable hours. If possible, anticipate these costs and factor them into your yearly expenses. An attorney’s volunteer hours and the resources they use should be considered when managing a firm’s time and budget. After all, your firm won’t be around to help anyone if you don’t take care your finances.
For more, download the Super Lawyers playbook Doing Good While Doing Well: A Road Map to Success with Pro Bono.