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Why lawyers are uniquely suited to give back

Pro bono, community work help attorneys learn, grow, connect

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There are many reasons to talk oneself out of doing pro bono and community service work -- the most obvious one being lack of time.

Especially for young associates, who are often frenetically busy and pressured to bill, bill, bill, pro bono work can frequently go by the wayside. What many up and coming young legal practitioners fail to realize is that doing stellar work goes far beyond what you do in the office. Not everyone has the finances to retain an attorney, but all are entitled to justice, so attorneys owe it to themselves -- and the community -- to engage in pro bono legal service.

The American Bar Association's ethical rules recommend that lawyers provide a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono work per year. On a local level, the San Diego County Bar Association (SDCBA) recommends the same -- and recently released the "Guide to Giving Back," a comprehensive resource for San Diego's legal community. The guide is part of the organization's year-long "Lawyers Giving Back" community service campaign -- launched to promote pro bono work, volunteerism and community service -- and outlines the many ways in which lawyers can contribute time and energy.

The pros of pro bono

A cornerstone of the legal profession, pro bono is a term derived from Latin meaning "for the public good." Because lawyers are focused on helping people and serving the public, pro bono work is an indispensable -- and immensely fulfilling -- career building tool.

A forward-thinking law firm will let its attorneys carve out time for pro bono services; not only is it beneficial for the firm, it offers a positive experience for the employee. In fact, some firms have made pro bono a top priority by requiring that lawyers devote a fixed number of hours to it; others have even hired full-time pro bono partners.

In addition to the thrill of giving to an important cause or helping someone less fortunate, what are the benefits of taking on pro bono work? It's no secret that law firm work can sometimes be tedious, requiring hours of research, motion writing and deposition summarizing. Pro bono work provides infinite variety and a refreshing and inspiring break from the day-to-day routine. It also connects attorneys with meaningful issues and important organizations and can provide outstanding training for young associates. Indeed, with pro bono work, attorneys can hone critical skills, among them strategizing, negotiating, legal writing/editing and even courtroom work. However, young attorneys should make sure they are adequately equipped to take on specific pro bono projects -- sometimes it even helps to collaborate with other lawyers.

Associates may fret that too much pro bono work will cut into billable hours and affect their ascent to partner status. Again, firms who allow their attorneys to make time for pro bono and recognize these efforts are often very successful and reap the benefits of satisfied, productive staff members.

An example of pro bono work at its best -- and the largest pro bono project in the history of American jurisprudence -- was Trial Lawyer's Care (TLC), orchestrated by the American Association for Justice (formerly known as ATLA). More than 1,000 lawyers from across the country -- including San Diego attorneys from Endeman, Lincoln, Turek & Heater; Casey Gerry; Hulburt & Bunn; Boudreau, Albert & Wohlfeil; Thornes Bartolotta McGuire and Yunker & Schneider -- participated in TLC, which provided free legal services to the families of the victims of 9/11. The project offers great evidence of how lawyers can effectively pool their efforts and make a significant difference.

Lawyers looking for innovative ways to do pro bono work locally can investigate opportunities at organizations such as the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program (sdvlp.org) and the Legal Aid Society of San Diego (lassd.org).

Giving back to the community

Attorneys have many unique skills that can pave the way for change. From helping homeowners in foreclosure to working in homeless shelters, there are dozens of opportunities for lawyers to give back. This year, San Diego County Bar Association members participated in multiple community service projects, among them serving as coaches and judges for the annual High School Mock Trial Competition and acting as VIP mentors to children re-entering the community as juvenile parolees.

Lawyers can also take on their own personal causes. For a little over two years, I have been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and by doing so have made a marked difference in a little girl's life. When I first met my "little sister," she was just 7 and was at a subpar reading leveling, causing her to fail first grade. Now she is one of the best readers in the class.

Other projects that have been personally gratifying for me include helping to rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina with fellow members of the American Association for Justice (AAJ), working with "Wills for Heroes" Foundation to draft wills for police officers and coaching kids at Helix High for a mock trial.

Whether it's an individual, a small group of lawyers or a nationwide effort such as Trial Lawyers Care, we as attorneys need to get out there and make a difference -- hopefully it's contagious.

Pride is an associate with Casey Gerry. She chairs the Service Committee of the San Diego County Bar Association Young New Lawyers Division, is on the board of directors of the Consumer Attorneys of San Diego and the board of governors of the New Lawyers Division of the American Association for Justice.

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