by: Edward B. Mulligan V, Attorney
The phrase “pro bono” comes from the latin phrase “pro bono publico” which means “for the public good.” It is generally used to refer to free services that a professional provides to non-profits, charitable organizations, and those who cannot afford to pay. Pro bono work is a part of many professions, including the legal profession.
In fact, Rule 6.1 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct, which governs the legal profession, states:
“A lawyer should render public interest legal service. A lawyer may discharge this responsibility by providing professional services at no fee or a reduced fee to persons of limited means or to public service or charitable groups or organizations, by service in activities for improving the law, the legal system or the legal profession, and by financial support for organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means.”
The Indiana State Bar Association’s House of Delegates has stated that “all Indiana lawyers have an ethical and a social obligation to provide uncompensated legal assistance to poor persons” and adopted an aspirational goal of fifty hours a year, or an equivalent financial contribution, for each member of the bar.
This 50 hour requirement is consistent with that found in the American Bar Association’s Model Rule 6.1, which states that the 50 hour requirement applies “regardless of professional prominence or professional workload.” Unfortunately, however, this rule remains merely aspirational. As a result, pro bono work is usually the first thing to go for young attorneys struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
But no matter how busy you are, it is critical that young lawyers find time in their schedules for pro bono work. Aside from the obvious benefits that pro bono work provides to the community, it can also leave its mark on those providing it. As the ABA has acknowledged, “[p]ersonal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer.” Comment 1 to ABA Rule Model Rule 6.1. More practically speaking, pro bono work can also be a significant and valuable source of experience for a young lawyer who might not otherwise have an opportunity to gain important skills in the first few years out of school.
Pro bono work can vary from representing clients in family law matters, to donating your time to the ask-a-lawyer program run by your local bar association, to serving as a moot court judge at your alma mater.
The experiences to be gained from pro bono work are plentiful. First, it puts young lawyers one-on-one and face-to-face with clients. It may not seem like a big deal, but for young attorneys who primarily work behind the scenes, client interaction is a big plus for professional development. Second, pro bono work can expose young lawyers to new areas of the law and provide them with hands-on training, including oral advocacy and legal research and writing. Third, pro bono work gets young lawyers into court and exposes them to the local court system and helps them build relationships with judges, court staff, and opposing counsel. It is a great way to make a name for yourself and to develop long-lasting relationships within your legal community.
For example, I am a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney focusing on complex product liability litigation. My practice is national and mostly federal, so I’m either traveling out of state for a deposition, mediation, or hearing, or I’m in Indiana, where I spend much of my time in the office engaged in research and writing. The pro bono work I’ve been involved in has provided me with much needed exposure to the local court system and other areas of the law that I wouldn’t otherwise have. For example, last year I worked on a pro bono matter for a former personal injury client. She was applying for an internship and needed help regarding an old criminal history record issue. After researching the law, I filed a petition, met with the prosecutor assigned to the case, and then met with the local judge. When it was all said and done, the judge granted the petition and the client was ecstatic because she was able to complete her internship. It was a very fulfilling experience for me as well; one that has lead me to participate regularly in the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Ask-A-Lawyer program. This winter I also plan to increase my involvement in pro bono work by taking on family law cases one at a time.
The bottom line is this: all lawyers should endeavor to give back to their community through pro bono work on the grounds that there are those in our community that are less fortunate. If you don’t think you have time, make time. It will be worth its weight in gold. And if you need to justify this added time commitment to your boss or spouse, you can always sell them on the opportunity for personal and professional development that giving back in this way can provide.
So, I encourage you to get out there and make a difference. You never know, you might actually learn something!