What do you call an attorney willing to work for free?

Some might say an idiot. A fool. Maybe even a masochist.

It’s an understandable reaction. We go through so much hard work and sacrifice just to become lawyers–all so we can slave away to earn a paycheck that we hope will pay off those school loans in time for retirement. Why, then, would we render our painstakingly attained skills for free? Don’t we deserve to selfishly hoard the fruits of our labor?

I remember being sworn into the New York bar. After the ceremony an ancient-looking gentleman handed me a “Pro Bono” pamphlet and said, “Make sure you do your duty for society.” I took his words to heart. I was proud to take on hundreds of hours of free transactional work for struggling performers while I strove to start my own practice.

However, I may have overdone the work-for-free thing–one billable hour for every 100 free hours worked doesn’t exactly make for a sustainable law practice. Nonetheless, helping others was rewarding, and the work was exciting.

Once I moved in-house, however, and started a habit of 80-hour weeks–well, it was hard enough to get my own work done, let alone do free work for others.

The fact is, it is far more challenging for in-house lawyers in small legal departments to take on pro bono work. When one lawyer in a small group is devoted to a pro bono project, it can cut deeply into the department’s productivity.

Big companies with large legal departments are better-equipped to donate time, money, resources and skills. They can make a splashier difference with their money and influence while having a proportionally lighter impact on the department’s operations.

Corporations that subscribe to the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge, for example, are all mighty monoliths of industry. As part of their pro bono efforts, they may give money and equipment, form committees and teams within their legal departments to take on pro bono projects and encourage their outside law firms to assist with their endeavors.

But what does it really mean to do pro bono? The term is derived from the Latin phrase pro bono publico, meaning “for the public good.” What “public good” means is certainly open to debate. For example, is corporate pro bono less valuable if it also benefits the company? Think of a drug company trying to target the elderly with a new drug and therefore doing a lot of pro bono at nursing homes, or a pen manufacturer that claims a $100,000 pro bono donation for education–by handing out their company-branded pens to college students. Each of us can search our own hearts for whether we’re truly doing public good or simply furthering company interests with a pro bono activity that, in truth, is little more than a marketing ploy.

So, what is our obligation as in-house counsel? The ABA states that each lawyer has a “responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay” and recommends that each lawyer do 50 hours per year, “regardless of their professional workload.” That part always scared me.

But while small legal departments may not be able to take on major projects, individually we can make meaningful contributions. You don’t need to take on a full-blown David v. Goliath class action to do pro bono. I’ve served my local bar association, taken on projects through Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, participated in legal-advice phone banks, helped out needy individuals with everything from leases to wills to author contracts and spoken at law schools. All of this is pro bono–helping to further the public good and/or the legal profession.

So, what do you call an attorney willing to work for free? A good start.