Pro Bono and Solos: Why it pays to lend a hand

by Dianne Van Voorhees on February 17, 2011

A question I sometimes get from solos is: I am trying to run a legal practice, why should I volunteer?

“Working for free” (on purpose) is something a lot of solos shy away from.  But, there are good reasons for doing pro bono work, especially when you have a solo practice:

Free CLE Credit.  If attorneys take their pro bono cases from a recognized legal services provider such as Metro Volunteer Lawyers, Colorado Legal Services, Colorado Lawyers Committee, the Faculty of Federal Court Advocates, Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, or Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocacy Network, they can receive Continuing Legal Education credits for pro bono work.  C.R.C.P. 260.8 states that a lawyer providing uncompensated pro bono legal representation may apply for and receive one unit of general CLE credit for every five billable-equivalent hours of representation, up to a maximum of nine CLE credits in each three-year compliance period.

Free malpractice coverage for pro bono work that attorneys take through a legal services provider.  (Metro Volunteer Lawyers provides malpractice insurance coverage for its pro bono volunteers for their pro bono MVL cases.)

Make a big difference for someone who does not have your skills, education, expertise, or objectivity while using a relatively small amount of your own time and energy. Many people just need to have an attorney assess their situation, provide them with their legal options, and present their case.  Of course, there are plenty of complicated and time-consuming pro bono matters, but you can choose what you are going to handle.

Sharpen your negotiating skills. When you advocate for a vulnerable person, you will be exercising your negotiation muscles. When you guide a client on a pro bono basis, you will learn to navigate their universe of issues and identify whatever matters most to them.  And, you will learn to negotiate with your clients in order to best address whatever is at stake.

Network with other practitioners who share the same ethics about giving back to the community.

Mentoring. When you take a pro bono case, you join the ranks of other professionals who care about the practice of law and the image of attorneys within the community. Some of them are willing to mentor, and others are waiting to be mentored. MVL and the Denver Bar Association help to match you with a mentor or a mentee.  And, mentors get free CLE credit when they help mentees with a pro bono MVL case.

Develop your own common sense. When you work with people who have limited means and when you respect your own limited means, you learn to approach things with a little more common sense. (I think I read this in a book somewhere, but it sounds good.)

Remind yourself why you became a lawyer. You are a smart person and an overachiever; there is just something about the law and justice that kept you going through law school, the bar exam, and starting your own practice.  Representing clients on a pro bono basis helps you remember all that.

Experience. The types of cases you will work on pro bono are so diverse and involve issues you might otherwise never get to experience (possibly because nobody would pay you to do that work). Look at the case law about family law, for example. Most of those cases were not appealed and preserved for posterity by people without money. No, the case law is made by people who can afford to litigate and then to appeal.  People who qualify for pro bono legal services often have factual situations that are unlike any you will read about in our case law.

Free Marketing. People notice when you volunteer your professional time and expertise.  When they are asked for a referral to somebody who does the kind of work you do, they think of you.  And, your pro bono clients may or may not always be in the same financial situation as they are when you work on their case.  In fact, they may end up much better off because of your help.  When they need an attorney again, they will turn to you.  Either way, do not underestimate the fact that your pro bono clients know a lot of people—people who can afford an attorney.

• In many cases, lawyers can identify and resolve legal issues without going to court or can resolve court cases more efficiently and fairly than persons representing themselves. Providing pro bono legal services helps stabilize families, saves taxpayers money, reduces the number of cases clogging the courts, and helps people move toward self-sufficiency and full participation in society.

• Best of all, volunteer attorneys get the satisfaction of helping someone that could not have gotten the help otherwise.  (Good Karma, warmth in the heart.)

Surely, I have not covered every reason that you should do pro bono work here, but it is a start.

To learn more about MVL and what we do and how you can help, please visit www.metrovolunteerlawyers.org.

Dianne Van Voorhees is the Executive Director of Metro Volunteer Lawyers.

{ 1 comment }

Phil James February 27, 2011 at 7:31 pm

I like the mentoring, and doing pro bono also makes connections with non-lawyers.

Lawyering is an art form. If I have good ideas about how to be a better lawyer, I strengthen the profession by exposing newer attorneys to my ideas. They may like my ideas, or not, but it’s still worth the exchange.

Non-lawyers are regularly exposed to lawyer-negative material; in the press, on the radio, and even in the comics. I like to take every opportunity to remind non-lawyers that 90% of us work hard to be skillful attorneys, and to be ethical attorneys.

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