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Pro bono service is generally interpreted to mean volunteer work providing legal services to the poor. But many in-house attorneys also help their communities in other ways–serving on boards of non-profit institutions and raising money for such groups.

Bobbie Gregg, chief compliance officer of Aon, for example, serves on the governing board of the Chicago Debate Commission. The commission supports a program that involves Chicago public high school and middle school students in debate as a way to motivate them to stay in school and help them develop skills that will allow them to pursue higher education. An arm of the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL), the Chicago Debate Commission supports two full-time staff members who work with high school and middle school coaches, sponsors policy debate tournaments and funds scholarships to debate camps.

By getting involved in debate, students learn how to research issues, develop arguments and think on their feet–all skills essential to a legal career. Gregg and other attorneys involved in the program hope that long term it will help address the legal profession’s diversity issue because most of the urban debaters are minorities

As a result, the Chicago Debate Commission is involving law firms. For example, Mayer Brown hosted a debate tournament in its offices in November, with attorneys serving as judges and presenting a program on legal careers. This two-day event exposed the debaters to law firm life and the lawyers to a potential group of applicants they might not otherwise consider while they are still in high school, Gregg points out.

While it’s too early to say how many urban debaters will end up in law school, the NAUDL has documented a very positive impact on their academic performance. According to the NAUDL, youths who have participated in urban debate leagues, on average, increase their literary skills by 25 percent, improve their grades by up to 10 percent and achieve high school graduation rates of nearly 100 percent, compared to a national average of 50 percent for their peers. Seventy percent to 90 percent go on to college.

“It is a heartwarming experience to see that debate really does change the lives of students who become involved,” Gregg says.

Gregg recalls the story of a high school girl who had been in foster care because one of her parents was in prison and the other was addicted to drugs. “She was underperforming [in school] and meeting everyone’s expectations that she would amount to nothing.” Gregg says.

Getting involved in debate turned the girl’s life around. She became a top student headed to college.

“Sometimes it seems there are very few things you can do where you can see dramatic results,” Gregg says. “This is a way that I can make a real contribution to the lives of individuals. That’s why I’m involved.”