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Legal Practice Management

Practice Innovations: Pro Bono legal work — Easy as pie, bite-size ways to increase participation

Sara Ghadiri  Pro Bono Counsel / Chapman and Cutler

· 5 minute read

Sara Ghadiri  Pro Bono Counsel / Chapman and Cutler

· 5 minute read

Law firms can enhance their commitment to pro bono work by finding small ways to increase participation throughout their workforce

Let’s imagine pro bono legal work as a pie — good for law firm business, good for getting and keeping talent, and complete with a dollop of good morale on top. Unfortunately, we have more pie than pie eaters, however. At least according to the most recent Legal Service Corporation (LSC) Justice Gap Report, which showed that LSC-funded legal services organizations turn away almost half of all pro bono requests because of a lack of resources.

Professional pro bono pie eaters (i.e., pro bono counsel) like me know that this pie has a lot of delicious bits in it once you dig in. However, a lot of attorneys think they don’t know how to eat pro bono pie, or think they don’t have time, or think you can only eat pie in court. But as any pie lover (of any kind) knows, there is always time for pie, especially if it’s just a quick bite. And eating pro bono pie is a skill, just like eating your vegetables. So how do you get someone to eat pie? By offering a bite, of course. And then another. And then a whole slice of pie.

Baked goods analogies aside, it’s important to discuss using limited scope projects to drive attorney participation in pro bono. First, however, a preface: This is not a manifesto against full-representation cases, in which an attorney takes on a full matter from beginning to end. Full representation is the backbone of pro bono representation, and it should stay that way. However, the reality is that full-representation cases can be difficult to place, especially when many law firms are struggling to get their pro bono programs off the ground or trying to combat low participation.

I want to acknowledge the reality that some of the major barriers that attorneys cite for not volunteering — namely not having time or not having the expertise to help — can be trumped by offering easier, bite-sized opportunities to drive engagement. These types of opportunities can be a pathway to convincing attorneys to take on more fulsome representations as they grow in personal investment and expertise in these matters.

Creating bite-sized pieces

Rule 1.2(c) of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct authorizes unbundling of services, whereby with informed consent, an attorney can limit the scope of their representation. Not every jurisdiction has adopted the Model Rules and even where the Model Rules have been adopted, there might non-uniform variations, so attorneys should review their state’s specific rules. This rule means, however, that cases can be broken into discrete pieces based on, for example, time or difficulty. By breaking a large case into these manageable pieces, it is easier to convince lawyers to take a proverbial bite.

Let’s imagine pro bono legal work as a pie — good for law firm business, good for getting and keeping talent, and complete with a dollop of good morale on top.

This can either be done internally, where a firm takes on a full-representation case; and as the case goes through project management, it is broken apart and placed with different team members, or at the legal aid organization, where projects are developed to assist staff legal services attorneys with heavy caseloads by farming out discrete projects.

Another option is to create phased projects with discrete time commitments, in which instead of a traditional one-day clinic, a volunteer commits to working with a client in a multiple-day clinic over a certain time period. Here, creativity is key. The more innovative we can be with different structures, the more we can make opportunities look and feel more manageable to already busy lawyers.

These phased projects can run the gamut of subject matters and areas of law. Cases in court can be broken into some pieces that require no appearances, making traditional court cases palatable for transactional attorneys. Long-term cases can have phased deadlines for discrete pieces, requiring short initial commitments and giving the lawyer the ability to choose to stay on for later phases.

Thus, benefits are manifold: these projects are designed to be quick, (relatively) easy, and good introductions to the subject matter, while allowing an attorney some pride in making a difference. While it takes some management to create and move the projects forward, with the right shepherding and the right opportunities, you can get volunteer attorneys to ask for more bites, and eventually, bigger pieces of the pie. Because once someone starts helping a client, they start caring.

In this way, lawyers will see the impact of their work and see how the built-up notions in their heads can be outweighed by their hearts. Because at their core, most attorneys chose this career path because they like helping — and that, hopefully, will translate into another helping of pie.