The stress Ms. W was under was evident when she walked in. Her shoulders were bent. Her expression strained. Her hands were clenched tightly around her pocketbook straps. Ms. W sat at my conference table still clutching her purse, perching on the edge of her seat. That was understandable with all she'd been through. Her husband had passed away after an illness full of suffering and pain. He had run up huge credit card bills trying to compensate for his loss of income. He had racked up astronomical medical bills.
Now he was gone. And she was alone. And the creditors were calling. From her perspective, this problem was so big she could not believe any attorney would take her case for free.
Ms. W came to my office from the Cobb Justice Foundation. Despite their assurances that attorneys take cases like hers on a pro bono basis all the time, she was still waiting to hear that from me. We talked about the options available to her through the probate process for about an hour.
As the hour went by she visibly began relaxing. She laughed and cried by turn as we talked about her problems. She relayed little anecdotes about her husband. The end result was we were able to protect her from being put out on the street.
Along the way, Ms. W began bringing little tokens of appreciation like homemade cookies, a flower from her garden or a card despite my admonishments. She began bringing in her children to proudly introduce them to "her attorney." I was the first attorney she'd ever had. Even though her case was not financially rewarding, it was a very rich experience just the same.
No doubt my paying clients appreciate me, too. It is hard to describe to someone who hasn't experienced it, but the appreciation is different when you've helped someone who had nowhere else to turn. And the appreciation is even more different when the client knows you helped them with no expectation of financial gain.
Many of us went to law school imagining we would be the next Atticus Finch. But the life of an attorney is so hurried and frenetic these days it is easy to forget those ideals. When that happens, we lose one of the best, most meaningful parts of our professional life. Maybe we can't all afford to earn the pay that full-time public service provides. However, it is possible to hold to a little of our inner Atticus Finch by taking a pro bono case or two each year. And those home-baked cookies can't be beat.
TOP EIGHT REASONS TO DO PRO BONO
Don't get me wrong, I like to make money as much as the next guy. However, I sometimes work for nothing. "Unheard of," says my father-in-law. For him, and attorneys I have met who do not do any pro bono work, I gave some thought to why I do. Here is my top eight list:
1. For every pro bono case you take, that is one attorney joke that is undermined.
2. Pro bono allows me to continue to pay my mortgage and still hold on to my dream of changing the world. While I can't afford to work full time in public service, I can find time for a case here and there.
3. Democracy demands it. If our legal system is not made to work for even the most economically vulnerable, then it ceases to be just.
4. God does not really care if I am "this close" to a billable hours bonus. I don't get a pass just because I am busy.
5. The economy stinks. Unemployment and foreclosures are mushrooming. Creditors are becoming increasingly aggressive. More people than ever with legal needs qualify for pro bono services.
6. The economy stinks, parte dos. Budget cuts have reduced government help to low-income people. Funding for full-time public service attorneys is drying up while donations to nonprofits are going down. Society's safety net for our most vulnerable is fraying.
7. It makes me a better attorney. When I was in law school, we did not discuss what happens in a probate case for a bigamist. I had to figure this out for a pro bono case. Believe it or not, I have since seen it twice more with paying clients.
8. It recharges my batteries. I haven't conducted a scientific study of the subject, but I am convinced that attorneys who participate in pro bono work have greater career satisfaction.
Many of us went to law school imagining that we would be the next Atticus Finch. And while "thanks" with a paycheck feels good, the thanks you get from your clients when you took their case for nothing feels good on a completely different, but very real level. My pro bono clients have sent me cards, letters of thanks, flowers and cookies. They have hugged me with tears in their eyes and proudly introduced me as "their attorney" to their family. And, as a bonus, they occasionally send me paying clients, or hire me for other work when they get back on their feet. Those one or two pro bono cases we take each year allow us to hold on to our inner Atticus Finch.
And I've never heard any Atticus Finch jokes.
Dawn Levine practices estate law at Lyle Detling &Levine in Marietta, Ga.