October is pro bono month and the Pennsylvania Bar Association will observe the National Celebration of Pro Bono Week from Oct. 21-27. The Rules of Professional Conduct encourage, but do not require, attorneys to offer pro bono representation or to financially support organizations that do.
Why else might you do pro bono work? To answer that, I went to the experts—accomplished attorneys who have also made a name for themselves as volunteers. When asked why pro bono, their answers had a few themes: it’s the right thing to do, it accelerates your training, and makes you feel great.
Charles Eppolito III is a partner at White and Williams and president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association. He’s a trial lawyer focusing on the defense of health care providers. As is often the case with pro bono work, it is nothing like his primary area of practice: “I have handled a range from landlord/tenant to property disputes to reviewing contracts/agreements to minor criminal infractions … While a younger lawyer, I supported the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Legal Line, whereby we would field calls from and otherwise help numerous citizens seeking legal advice and assistance.”
When asked why he does it and how it benefits him, Eppolito responded: “As lawyers, we are in a unique position to assist citizens by providing legal representation or otherwise securing access to justice. Second, although not the primary reason for doing pro bono work, there is great satisfaction in knowing that I helped someone and made a difference at a very important and stressful time in their life. I also suggest that young lawyers get involved and support pro bono clients because, in addition to the above, they gain meaningful experience representing actual clients and sometimes getting into court and obtaining valuable litigation experience, which is becoming more difficult (particularly for younger lawyers) to obtain these days.” He added that pro bono work “reaffirms that being an attorney is more than just a job or vocation. Rather, it is a profession with a higher calling and greater responsibility. In my experience, those attorneys that engage in pro bono work achieve a greater sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in knowing that they have made a meaningful impact on lives.”
On how to fit it in, Eppolito says “As with anything, we tend to have time to do those things that we find valuable, important and necessary. It may be a matter of priorities. However, if we examine those things that we do undertake and how we choose to spend the precious commodity of time, I believe that many of us probably can find the time to take on a pro bono matter or engage in a bar association or other organizational project that supports people in need of legal assistance. If folks truly are so busy that they don’t have the capacity to take on a pro bono case, they should consider contributing financially (if able) to a legal services/aid or pro bono organization or a foundation such as the Pennsylvania Bar Foundation. You can typically specify that you want the contribution to go toward pro bono. I would encourage everyone to do so.”
For James D’Angelo, a business litigator and member of McNees Wallace & Nurick, the call to do pro bono work came early: “When I was growing up, I saw a lot of people suffering because they could not find their way in a complicated world. Being blessed with an education and resources, I have always believed it is important to give back.” D’Angelo works with MidPenn Legal Services of which he says “MidPenn Legal Services is our beloved civil legal aid provider in Central Pennsylvania. It will celebrate half a century of service in 2019. I was initially involved because our pro bono program in Dauphin County and MidPenn work closely together. Later, I became a board member, and then served as treasurer and president. Today, I am immediate past president and chair of its board governance committee.”
D’Angelo says “pro bono is the best thing we do as attorneys. Nothing feels better than giving a helping hand and asking nothing in return.” He adds that pro bono work made him a better attorney and brought a lot of long-time professional friendships.
Joseph A. Sullivan is special counsel and director of pro bono programs at Pepper Hamilton, where he established a robust system for providing pro bono work. On the question of why, he says, “We are not just a business providing excellent legal services for clients that pay for those services. We are representatives of the system of justice in this country and we have special privileges to file lawsuits, to appear in court, to argue cases that the ordinary public does not have, and with privileges come responsibilities. As a profession, it is our duty as lawyers to look out for the integrity of the entire legal system and, since there are many people who cannot afford a lawyer, it is incumbent on the legal profession to make sure that we provide maximum access to justice. And one of the ways to do that is for all law firms, especially those that are doing well financially, to provide pro bono services to people who can’t afford it.”
Sullivan points to the lack of right-to-counsel in civil matters involving basic human needs, many of which could devastate families: housing, health care and parental rights. “If someone is facing the permanent deprivation of their children, that should not happen absent a legal proceeding with counsel representing them.” He maintains that the legal system cannot have integrity when some have no access to justice.
Sullivan encourages lawyers to do pro bono because it’s a great way to get professional training. Litigators can take prisoner civil rights cases and have an opportunity to interview clients, conduct discovery, file motions, and handle oral arguments that lawyers often don’t have early in their careers. He also cites personal satisfaction. When your work feels routine and rote, you can embellish your legal practice by taking on pro bono in a different area.
Mark W. Tanner, co-managing shareholder of Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelernter Tanner Weinstock Dodig, was recently named volunteer of the month by the Support Center for Child Advocates. He describes pro bono as: “An opportunity to broaden your skills in different areas of the law, and a chance to make a real difference in someone’s life at time when they are feeling helpless and overwhelmed. For me, these experiences make me proud to be a lawyer and remind me of why I went to law school.”
Pro bono cases have been meaningful for Tanner: “I have had several clients who were children, and I have worked to shepherd them through the system where they have been removed from their parents due to neglect and/or abuse, but have found wonderful foster homes and ultimately been adopted into loving families. Every time that happens, it is a wonderful feeling. I have learned about the tremendous work done by some of the social services in our area, and I have met some amazing people who give enormously of themselves in an effort to help children right here in our backyard, and give these kids a shot at breaking out of a cycle that otherwise would offer them little hope.”
Why pro bono? “In addition to opportunities to sharpen your skills, pro bono work creates tremendous networking opportunities and exposes you to areas of the law that can prove interesting. Most of all, you will meet some of the most grateful clients you will ever represent, and it restores one’s sense of pride in being a lawyer.” As an extra bonus, Tanner adds “It has expanded my network of contacts, and I have made some lasting friendships.”
Consider a pro bono matter. According to the experts, it’s the right thing to do, will enhance your career and feel very good.
Dena Lefkowitz is a certified professional coach who helps clients improve networking and marketing skills, make successful career transitions, and develop the skills necessary to lead. Having practiced law for 25 years in private practice and in-house, she understands the challenges new and seasoned lawyers face. Lefkowitz has successfully coached a best-selling author, lawyers, accountants and chief executives. Firms have also hired Lefkowitz to work directly with lawyers at all phases of their careers to improve performance and increase their contributions to the firm. For more information, visit www.achievementbydesign.com.