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At Appleseed, one of the nation’s largest pro bono networks, we work in partnership with some of the largest corporate law firms in the country. We depend on the pro bono efforts of these firms to work on education, immigration, health care, and other issues. While we have been impressed and humbled by the intellectual energy and commitment of the lawyers with whom we have worked, we have also been dismayed when projects fall through the cracks. The story is usually the same: Associates who volunteer for a project, with all good intentions, and then can’t find the time to deliver. One solution that’s worked for us is making sure all pro bono cases, just like paying cases, are led by partners who can run interference and make sure their teams’ time is protected. We also have come to realize that if senior partners don’t set the example, lawyers and staff from across the firm will get the message that pro bono isn’t really part of the firm’s culture. What we try to impress upon everyone who works with us, pro bono or otherwise, is that doing great work goes beyond what you do in the office; it also relates to the work you feel most passionately about. Every day, we hear about social and policy issues that may strike a personal chord and may lead us to question, “As a lawyer, what can I do to help?” It would be wonderful if we could go from that thought straight to signing up an attorney to contribute pro bono hours to a nonprofit organization or community group. But for many lawyers in the public and private sectors there can be significant reasons why they aren’t able to commit to pro bono services. IT’S ABOUT TIME The most obvious reason many lawyers do not contribute pro bono hours is a lack of time. While a firm may support pro bono services in theory, even giving credit toward an attorney’s billable hours, there simply may not be enough hours in the day. The answer, of course, is that a firm that doesn’t let you make time for pro bono doesn’t really support pro bono, just as a firm that doesn’t make time for professional development isn’t really committed to it. Some firms have moved to make pro bono a priority by requiring that lawyers devote a fixed number of hours to it, usually around 20 hours a year. One firm, for example, is instituting a new policy to “show we mean business,” says Miriam Buhl, pro bono counsel for Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “The policy requires that all new attorneys take a pro bono matter in their first two years at the firm, and we also expect every partner and counsel to take or supervise a matter every year. While it’s a goal for the firm as a whole to have substantial — in terms of both quantity and quality — pro bono work, it’s just as important that each attorney builds it into his or her practice, even in a modest amount. You can’t be a great lawyer without pro bono, and we can’t be a great institution without it, either.” Jones Day also values pro bono work, notes Vicki Walcott-Edim, a Jones Day associate who worked extensively on an Appleseed project in 2004. She says the partners at the firm “lead by example,” noting that “they’re actively involved in pro bono matters and encourage associates to do the same, often by recruiting them to work on various projects.” Besides the problem of time, an additional concern we hear from some in-house attorneys is that many have little to no litigation experience, leaving them to question what kind of pro bono work they can realistically contribute. It is true that pro bono has been and remains largely a litigator’s game. It’s easy to find courtroom opportunities, and that’s as it should be. Trial work gives young lawyers an outlet for building their skills and pursuing their passions while they represent clients who otherwise wouldn’t have good representation. Attorneys not involved in litigation may find that not only is there a smaller pool from which to choose, but their practice leaders, many of whom came of age at a time when there wasn’t much transactional pro bono work, aren’t creating a culture in which pro bono is valued. BEYOND LITIGATION But there are many new opportunities for transactional pro bono work waiting for attorneys with specialized skills. In fact, there are huge opportunities for lawyers to do legal and policy work that taps their expertise and that matters enormously. At Appleseed, we have been working over the past few years to help Latino immigrants overcome legal and structural barriers to accessing the mainstream financial system. Kathy Scott, a banking lawyer at White & Case, has counseled us on the USA Patriot Act and federal regulatory issues, helped draft a guide for banks on how to safely serve this market within the current regulatory framework, drafted comments on proposed regulations, and helped us in countless other ways. She says she never would have thought she could find a pro bono project that would use her legal expertise in bank advisory matters. But the work she has done not only directly relates to her area of practice but will help save hard-working immigrant families millions of dollars by giving them access to more affordable products and services. In addition, there are other projects not involving litigation that offer firms the opportunity to work on large-scale initiatives across offices and practice groups. These kinds of projects can help a firm build its identity while it takes on much more significant projects. Holland & Knight, for instance, has worked with us over the past year to examine how the landmark federal No Child Left Behind Act is working — or not working — to help parents improve the education their children and, ultimately, all public school children get. The law requires that schools give parents information on their performance and lays out various options for parents whose children are in low-performing schools. Nearly 50 lawyers, led by Holland & Knight’s education group, have interviewed state and district school officials (superintendents, Title I directors, principals, and so on) across the country to help us understand how the parental-involvement provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act are being implemented. Appleseed will take these findings and work with school districts and parents to make sure schools are complying with the law and parents have the information and opportunity to be better decision makers and advocates for their kids. One other example of a nonlitigation project is a study Appleseed has undertaken in partnership with seven law firms that are working on a massive effort — engaging 100-plus lawyers — to assess the status of the more than 1 million people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Teams of lawyers conducted interviews with hurricane evacuees, community-based organizations, and local government agencies in New Orleans; Baton Rouge, La.; Houston; San Antonio; Birmingham, Ala.; and Atlanta. After collecting and evaluating information from these interviews and dozens of conversations with national experts, the teams will recommend policies for state and local governments and nongovernmental organizations. The recommendations will outline the steps these groups can take to rapidly and equitably integrate hurricane evacuees into existing populations, connect them with the services needed for long-term transition, and, ultimately, guide them back to self-sufficiency. David Gross, the project leader at Faegre & Benson, characterizes the law firms’ work in six cities as a massive witness-interview project, tapping lawyers’ skills of framing questions; gathering, analyzing, and presenting data; and making recommendations. Some lawyers share a concern that too much pro bono work will cut into their hours and affect their climb to partner status; thus, they think this type of work best suits attorneys who are already partners. But at Appleseed we are often amazed by associates who make time for pro bono and impressed by the firms that acknowledge and reward their efforts. These firms have learned an important lesson: Their associates, many of whom are mired in work that is less than fully stimulating, may find in pro bono a great chance to engage their minds and souls, which will also enable firms to keep associates past their first few years. In addition, they’ll develop skills that will serve them well in areas that will make them more effective in billable work. And it’s not just core legal skills that will be cultivated but also the rarer qualities of leadership, judgment, project management, and client relationships that will be critical within and outside of the firm. Finally, for lawyers who would love to volunteer their time but would rather look at areas outside the law, we encourage them to do so. There are hundreds of opportunities around, from working in soup kitchens to rebuilding low-income homes. But we cannot stress too much the fact that there are absolutely no opportunities for nonlawyers to do legal work. That’s why we encourage lawyers to consider the work that only lawyers can do. Our work on education, immigration, and health care — three of the most pressing and complex issues we face in the United States today — is done by tax, real estate, and antitrust lawyers. The bottom line is this: Don’t be afraid to step outside of your specific area of practice, because your legal skills will serve you well in navigating a range of issues that can have a dramatic impact on society. Don’t do it because you have to. The reason to do pro bono work is that it’s some of the most challenging, interesting, and meaningful work you will do as a lawyer. It reminds us of what made many of us choose the legal profession — it’s creative, it’s optimistic, and it matters. Ask many lawyers about the work they enjoyed most, and you’ll find that they’ll talk about a pro bono project.
Linda Singer is executive director of Appleseed, a nonprofit network that links law firms with pro bono work, based in Washington, D.C.

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