It is often said that lawyers are not particularly generous with their time. For us, time is a commodity, at once our greatest asset and our biggest liability. Billable hours, a busy practice and professional and personal obligations place great demands upon the hours in every lawyer’s day.
Even so, during my tenure as an attorney at Burns White, I have learned firsthand that when service to the community is made a priority by the lawyers serving, as well as by the law firm they are a part of, everyone — the lawyers, the firm and the community at large — wins. This particularly rings true for newer associates, for whom pro bono work offers an avenue to fulfill the hands-on, practical experience from which they and the community can benefit.
An associate’s first few years of practice are a time that in many firms means hours of research, drafting of documents for others to present and other day-to-day case activities critical to successful results. Typically, there are not many chances to interact with clients or handle matters on their own. Pro bono cases provide young lawyers with a breadth of experience not generally available in the early years of their legal career — whether it is in a negotiation with an adversarial party, attendance at a protection from abuse (PFA) hearing or a court appearance before a district magistrate with opposing counsel at the other table.
Throughout its 25-year history, Burns White has encouraged its lawyers, both new and experienced, to give back to the community in many ways — from coordinating food pantry donations and days of service to mentoring at-risk students and reading to preschoolers, in addition to providing legal services to those in need. Since the day the firm opened its doors, all attorneys, from long-established partners to newly hired associates, participate in pro bono work, amassing more than 750 hours of pro bono service each year for the past five years. It has been our experience that every lawyer providing this invaluable service benefits from doing so. While it is easy to lose perspective in the midst of a busy caseload, pro bono cases provide a valuable reminder, whether it is a PFA negotiation or a landlord-tenant hearing, of how lucky we are to do what we do. It simply reinforces our duty to give back in some manner.
In the early years at Burns White, the types of pro bono work varied widely from attorney to attorney, but as the firm grew, a more focused program was instituted based on the needs of the community, the number and abilities of our lawyers and the types of pro bono legal services that would provide the greatest impact. Burns White is a longtime member of the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership, a collaboration of corporate legal departments, the Allegheny County Bar Association (ACBA) and Neighborhood Legal Services Association (NLSA). Our firm, along with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney and Alcoa’s legal department, is responsible for staffing one of NLSA’s signature projects, the McKees Rocks Community Clinic, a nonprofit clinic providing civil legal assistance to low-income area residents for more than 10 years.
Burns White is also a longtime participant in NLSA’s Protection from Abuse program, which helps to protect potential domestic violence victims by providing them with attorneys for representation in PFA hearings. In 2010, Burns White partnered with the ACBA to add a new program — the Wills for Heroes initiative, which provides essential legal documents free of charge to area first responders. Other pro bono work is performed by our lawyers based on their personal interests or where additional needs are identified.
Through these established programs, our younger associates are both encouraged and expected to serve those in need, and our partners and experienced associates set the example for our new associates to follow. In fact, two of our associates in particular, Nichole E. Humes and Stephie-Anna Kapourales Ramaley, are raising the bar this year with their pro bono efforts, each earning the distinction of “Unsung Hero” by The Legal . Led by partner John M. Steidle, who has coordinated our lawyers with the needs of our pro bono partners for the last 10 years, the Burns White Pro Bono Committee ensures that our lawyers are matched up with the work that needs to be done and that our programs are managed in conjunction with NLSA’s staff and the ACBA.
In addition, we use a “billing” number to track our lawyers’ pro bono time. For young associates mindful of billable hours, having an officially sanctioned means of accounting for their time has been invaluable. At the end of each year, we meet as a firm to assess what we have worked on during the year, whether we need to adjust our staffing for any particular project, or if there are any new opportunities for us to serve. At this meeting, our associates elect which program they would like to participate in during the upcoming year.
Because we are committed to several different types of programs, our associates have the opportunity to work on a broad spectrum of issues that are generally outside of their usual area of practice. This unique opportunity allows them to grow their skills and represent real-world clients with very real, identifiable needs. For our firm, it has been a critical component in the development of practical skills that will serve our younger associates for their entire career.
When our younger associates take on a pro bono case, it is often their first opportunity to have their own clients, while we mentor them through the process in tandem with the resources and training provided by Neighborhood Legal Services and the ACBA. They go through the process of opening a file, interviewing the client and determining what steps are necessary to bring the case to a successful resolution for their client. As the case proceeds, the associate receives valuable knowledge of advocacy, negotiation and strategy. The decisions he or she makes here have an immediate and important impact on the client he or she is representing. These experiences and skills will help to make a new associate a better lawyer.
Hearings and other courtroom proceedings provide new associates with a practical understanding of the rules of evidence, direct and cross-examination techniques and how to effectively advocate for their client, often under less than optimal conditions with a short time to prepare. These cases also underscore, especially for new lawyers, the tangible effect that their education and skills give them to really make a difference in the lives of people unable to effectively advocate for themselves. In addition, it gives them confidence to tackle new problems and the realization that they are capable of solving those problems.
Pro bono work highlights the great impact a small act can have on the day-to-day lives of our clients, whether it is making a phone call to a creditor who’s harassing someone late in payment, negotiating with a landlord to not evict a tenant or preparing a will to ensure that a first responder’s family is provided for if the unthinkable should happen. Each of the pro bono programs Burns White participates in helps our clients with these issues and many more. More importantly, they help our young associates become better lawyers — lawyers with an understanding of both the responsibility to help those in need in our community and the benefit we all receive from doing so. •
Amanda H. Sargent is co-coordinator of the pro bono committee at Burns White, where she manages the firm’s pro bono service activities. A senior associate of the firm’s transportation group, she represents a wide range of clients in the areas of railroad and maritime law, business law and general litigation. She can be reached at email@example.com or 412-995-3000.