Most young attorneys understand and appreciate the value of doing pro bono legal work. For many, in a world where billable hours reign supreme, the issue is almost always one of diverting time away from fee-based matters and devoting the necessary amount of time to properly represent those in need.
However, when making this calculation, many young attorneys fail to recognize the positive effects doing pro bono work can have on their own careers. If there is any question in your mind as to whether you should commit to a pro bono representation, the immediate tangible benefits you will almost certainly see to your own career growth and development should tip the scales firmly in favor of doing so.
When I started practicing law as a litigation associate in one of Philadelphia’s largest firms, I was eager to dive right in and get started. With scenes from My Cousin Vinny and other law-themed movies fresh in my mind, I could picture myself taking the Philadelphia courts by storm right out of the gate.
Of course, I know now, and deep down I probably knew then, that getting into court as a first-year associate is not always easy, especially in some of the larger firms. While firms are typically mindful of exposing young associates to actual courtroom experiences from an early stage in their careers, such experience usually comes in the form of observing a more senior attorney and/or mentor argue. The opportunities to actually stand before a judge or arbitrator and argue can be few and far between.
Luckily, I had an ace up my sleeve in the form of pro bono work. While at law school, I had been involved in a clinic that advised indigent clients on custody and support issues, and knew that I wanted to continue to help such clients as I built my practice. I quickly got in touch with Philadelphia VIP (with whom I highly recommend volunteering), found a case that looked interesting and off I went. Within a matter of weeks, I was arguing before a judge in family court.
Other pro bono opportunities came my way, and I always jumped at the opportunity to not just get involved, but to get valuable experience along the way. In addition to trying to always have at least one active pro bono child custody case, I have negotiated a settlement for an injured woman who entered into a structured settlement, represented a local neighborhood association in a dispute with various members of its community and represented prisoners in civil rights actions as part of the Prisoner Civil Rights Panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Each of these matters provided me with valuable, yet distinct, opportunities to refine my legal skills from an early point in my career. Whether it was getting into court from an early stage, taking and defending depositions or dealing directly with and advising clients, I feel fortunate to have had such great pro bono opportunities from the outset of my career. Young lawyers should make it a point to seek out similar pro bono opportunities early and often.
There is no mandatory pro bono requirement for attorneys imposed by the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct. However, Rule 6.1 is clear that a "lawyer should render public interest legal service." Although this appears to fall short of required pro bono service for Pennsylvania lawyers, the rule continues to discuss ways by which a "lawyer may discharge this responsibility." Thus, although the language of the rule is permissive, it is clear that pro bono service is not just something nice that lawyers can do, but indeed is a responsibility for all those who choose to practice law and be barred in Pennsylvania.
For young lawyers, the choice should be a no-brainer. Why not take advantage of your obligation to help not just those in need, but to help yourself by furthering your own career? It is truly a situation where everybody wins.
Of course, my purpose is not to suggest that attorneys should place their own career interests ahead of those of their pro bono clients or prospective clients. Indeed, the comments to Rule 6.1 state that "personal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer." This is certainly the case. The overriding principle behind pro bono is the opportunity and, to be sure, the moral, ethical and professional obligation to provide legal assistance to those who truly need it but are unable to afford it.
The point is that pro bono work will almost certainly result in an experience that is not only rewarding from a moral, ethical and spiritual level, but also in one that will stimulate professional development. Oftentimes, these experiences are such that they would not otherwise be available to young attorneys in a fee-based setting. Simply put, taking advantage of these opportunities allows young attorneys to help themselves while they help others.
There are a number of legal service organizations in Philadelphia that directly provide pro bono services and/or facilitate the placement of attorneys with clients who need legal assistance. Reach out to them. Talk to attorneys who work with them. Find the one that best fits your interests and get involved with a case. You will find that the experience is rewarding on both a personal and professional level and you will feel good knowing that as you gain valuable experience from an early stage in your legal career, you are helping someone that truly needs and appreciates it.
Matthew S. Olesh is an associate in the Philadelphia office of Fox Rothschild. He concentrates his practice on commercial litigation issues including antitrust, bankruptcy, class action defense, corporate governance, employment, environmental compliance, insurance, international law and business disputes, real estate, and white-collar compliance and defense.