Pro bono has been a touchstone for me throughout my career. I have always made it a priority to have at least one pro bono matter on my plate, no matter how busy I am with my billable work. Working on causes about which I care deeply helps me to remember the reasons that I went to law school and became a lawyer in the first place. It helps me stay passionate about the work I do every day.
Having pro bono as part of my career plan has been instrumental in helping me develop as a lawyer. At each stage of my career, from junior associate to partner, pro bono has helped me refine my skills at everything from courtroom presentation and trial strategy to public relations and client management. Whatever level I happened to be at with a particular skill, pro bono has given me the opportunity to stretch to something a bit further beyond my comfort zone. Below I’ve outlined six ways that pro bono has helped my career development, at different stages. While these same skills may not be fundamental to your practice, these examples may help you consider ways that pro bono can help with your own career development.
Learning to Take Ownership of Matters
As a junior associate at a large firm, one of the most important things that pro bono taught me was how to think strategically about a case from start to finish. Partners often tell junior associates that they need to take “ownership” of their cases, but it is hard to know what that means until you have had the primary responsibility for setting the overall strategic direction for a case. Working on a small pro bono matter provides the opportunity to be the attorney who decides what motions need to be brought, what depositions need to be taken, what avenues of third-party discovery might be fruitful, or how a settlement might be negotiated. One of my first pro bono matters involved negotiating a class-wide settlement and shepherding the case through preliminary and final settlement approval hearings in federal court. That experience proved invaluable to me as I developed as a junior class action litigator, and gave me confidence when it came time for me to negotiate settlements and prepare approval papers in more complex, high-stakes billable cases.
Building Fundamental Practice Skills
Pro bono gave me the opportunity to develop and hone fundamental lawyering skills, particularly those involving stand-up time in court. As a fourth-year associate, I had my first opportunity to handle a trial in a pro bono matter. That case gave me my first voir dire, witness cross-examination, expert witness at trial and closing argument. Getting all of those “firsts” out of the way helped demystify the trial process. More importantly, handling the case from beginning to end, on my own, taught me a lot. Trial vividly illustrated the impact of the decisions I had made in the pretrial phases of the case. I saw firsthand how early rulings were crucial to allowing us to obtain and present key evidence at trial. Although I do not go to trial frequently in my current area of practice, my case strategy is heavily influenced by what would happen if a case ultimately went to trial. Having trial experience under my belt, and seeing how the pretrial judgment calls that I had made helped position (or haunted) me at trial, was crucial to my development as a midlevel associate.
As a midlevel and senior associate, pro bono helped me learn how to develop and maintain internal and external relationships. Working on pro bono matters outside of my traditional area of expertise gave me the opportunity to work with attorneys in my firm with whom I would not otherwise have worked. Because the issues in my pro bono cases were emotionally charged, the bonds I built with these attorneys were strong and meaningful to us all.
My pro bono cases also helped me learn how to develop and nurture client relationships. Being the first person the client contacts is not always easy. Learning how to communicate effectively about complex legal issues with a nonlawyer, set expectations, be responsive and keep boundaries, are all important lessons that working on pro bono can provide.
Finally, working on pro bono helped me develop relationships with nonprofit organizations and thought leaders within the legal community. Anyone who has worked on pro bono knows that there are many talented attorneys who have dedicated their lives to public interest work. By taking on pro bono cases, you get to meet and learn from some of the best and brightest attorneys in other fields.
Handling High-Profile Matters
As I developed into a senior associate and junior partner, I had grown comfortable taking a leading role in my billable cases. At that stage of my career, pro bono continued to allow me to stretch to learn a new skill set: handling the public relations and media aspects of high-profile matters. As a fifth-year associate, I was asked to tackle a small matter: an administrative case addressing whether a same-sex couple could receive governmental benefits from the courts. This matter involved a novel legal issue and presented me with the opportunity for oral argument before a well-respected federal appellate judge who would be sitting in an administrative capacity. I readily accepted the assignment. Over the course of several years, as I became a senior associate and then a partner, the case turned into a constitutional challenge to the federal refusal to recognize marriages between same-sex couples. I was able to argue and win one of the early rulings invalidating the federal statute at issue as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ultimately agreed, in a related case with which we had been coordinating.
The case ended up garnering significant media attention. At first, I found speaking to journalists not only nerve-racking, but also distracting and, I thought, a waste of time. Eventually, though, I grew to appreciate the importance of the battle for public opinion to the overall case strategy. With the help of our cocounsel, an LGBT rights organization that frequently handles high-profile matters, I learned to distill complex legal concepts into user-friendly sound bites for the press, and I developed methods to prepare for interviews to make sure that our targeted message was likely to be highlighted in the ultimate article. I learned about media cycles, how to forge relationships with reporters and how to provide them with the necessary information at the right time. I became comfortable making presentations and participating in televised discussions on our marriage equality work. All of those were new skills for me and ones that I hope will come in handy in handling some of the more sensitive billable work that we do at our firm.
As a partner, supervising pro bono projects has been a great way to mentor junior attorneys. Working with a junior attorney on a cause that we both feel strongly about forges a lasting connection. Moreover, because they do not have the same billable pressure as other projects, pro bono projects can also provide opportunities to give more challenging assignments to associates. On pro bono cases, there may be more freedom to give associates assignments that stretch their abilities, knowing that the associate can run through things a few extra times to make sure everything goes smoothly and not worry about billing the client for the time.
Keeping the Practice of Law Fresh
At every stage of my career, working on pro bono matters has been a good way of maintaining my passion for the practice of law. Most practitioners specialize and for some attorneys that starts right after law school. Becoming an expert in your chosen area of the law is a worthy and important goal. Working on pro bono matters outside of your chosen area of expertise, however, can provide a nice break from what you already know. Remember how fun it was in law school to choose your classes and learn about a completely new area of the law? That feeling does not have to end at graduation.
Legal services organizations provide training sessions, manuals and mentorship that make it easy to tackle a new area of law in a pro bono matter, whether it be in immigration, housing or criminal law. You will also find that others in the legal community will appreciate and support your efforts. When I handled a small pro bono criminal matter, I made it a point to befriend many of the public defenders in the local court, and they provided me with invaluable advice and mentorship. The ability to continue to learn and challenge yourself, while also helping someone out, is one of the great gifts of pro bono.
Rita Lin is a partner at Morrison & Foerster. Her practice focuses on complex civil litigation with an emphasis on the defense of consumer class actions against financial services companies. The Recorder named Lin among its 50 “Fast Track” lawyers for 2012 and The Daily Journal named her to its list of 100 “Top Women Lawyers for 2012,” based in part on her pro bono work. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.