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While interning with the Legal Aid Society my first summer after law school, I gained a new appreciation for attorneys who choose a life of public service. Thinly staffed, the two attorneys I supported managed more cases between them over the course of that summer than many do in a lifetime. Although a career in public service may not be for everyone, I am always surprised at how some attorneys are willing to perform hundreds of hours of pro bono work each year, while others wouldn’t think twice about checking the “seldom to never” category in an attorney survey. It certainly doesn’t seem to have anything to do with how busy they are. Like so many things, if you need an attorney to handle a pro bono case, ask one who’s busy. At the College of William and Mary, listening to our Dean lecture on the meaning of “the true citizen lawyer,” I often wondered whether true citizen lawyers were made, or born. Now that I have practiced for a few years and have met dozens of attorneys engaged in pro bono representation, the victor in this nature versus nurture debate seems clear. While the zealousness with which so many pro bono attorneys pursue their client’s cause might suggest a DNA component to their plight, I believe true citizen lawyers are made, not born. Every attorney is capable of giving a tremendous gift to those most in need, and it’s never too late to learn how. That is not to say that pro bono representation is without its thorns. Far from it, in fact. For a variety of reasons, such cases often arrive at an attorney’s doorstep like an impetuous orphan – demanding and in need of immediate attention – affording their new caregiver precious little time to get up to speed on the facts of the case before jumping in with both feet. But jump they must. Pro bono clients typically seek representation only in the midst of an active conflict involving emotionally-wrought issues, such as: shelter, livelihood, welfare or medical benefits, social security, incarceration, eviction, custody, divorce, discrimination and other forms of intolerance or injustice. As a result, and due to the seriousness of the issue at stake, few pro bono attorneys insist on limiting client contact to normal working hours, creating a significant demand on personal time. So why do it then? “I swear this is the last pro bono case I’m going to take,” a fellow associate recently commented to me after the case she’d been handling took an unexpected turn for the worse while she was away on a much deserved vacation. “Right,” I laughed, “that’s what I always say right before I take on another case.” “I know,” she grinned, “me too.” For myself, I have both altruistic and selfish reasons for engaging in pro bono representation. Selfishly, such cases are also a good way to gain practical experience, to make acquaintances with local judges and to get comfortable advocating in the court room. Indeed, although I am not in favor of making pro bono representation mandatory, I am sure that large firms would see a marked improvement in their junior associates’ litigation skills if it was. Altruistically, I believe that if all attorneys devoted just a small fraction of their time, energy and talent to helping those most in need, a great weight would be lifted from society’s shoulders. Such cases are also an opportunity to act as both counselor and confident to a fellow human during a time of great need. Finally, I suppose somewhere between altruistic and selfish lies the extreme gratitude and appreciation pro bono clients shower upon their legal champions. Indeed, even the littlest among them appreciate their attorney’s efforts more than you might suspect. This past summer, I was at the D.C. aquarium with a five year old child for whom I have acted as guardian ad litem for nearly two years. In light of an upcoming court hearing, I was attempting to explain my relationship to her, and asked if she knew what a guardian was. With complete confidence, she replied, “Yes. You’re like a guard in a bank. You keep me safe.” Each attorney who agrees to undertake pro bono representation likely has a different reason for doing so. The incredible difference it can make in a client’s life, however, remains the same. One has only to agree to represent a pro bono client to realize that the rewards are plentiful; one might even say, addictive. But please don’t take my word for it. Take on a pro bono case and see for yourself.

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