California Lawyers Association

CLA Celebrates Benefits of Pro Bono Work

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With pro bono work an integral part of the legal community, last month’s national recognition week was a way to not only spotlight opportunities but celebrate the widespread benefits for both clients and attorneys. 

Some give back through advice hotlines and websites such as the California Lawyers Association and Legal Access Alameda’s FreeLegalAnswers service. Others donate their time through lawsuits and other litigation that might not have a chance of success without them. And even more partner with their colleagues to tackle bigger challenges that rival the complexity of major billable cases. All share the common goal of helping people whose causes bring not financial rewards but public service rewards such as crucial policy changes, improved personal lives and justice for people who might have viewed it as out of reach.

As the statewide organization for California’s 250,000 lawyers, the California Lawyers Association recognizes the critical need for pro bono work at all levels, and its leaders encourage everyone to get involved any way they can. “There are so many great opportunities out there for attorneys who have all ranges of skills, time, and specialization to help in a variety of ways,” said CLA President Emilio Varanini. “Getting involved not only helps fill critical needs in society, it helps you grow as an attorney and person, too.”

The 2020 National Pro Bono Week was Oct. 25 through Oct. 31, but the CLA’s celebration isn’t limited to one week: it extends year-round, and Varanini and his colleagues are always looking for new ways to promote the great work being done by members, and the reasons why getting involved and staying involved is so important. While some might try to fit their pro bono work into that one week, a lot use the entire month of October to celebrate, and November gives a great opportunity to reflect on the importance of the work and thank everyone for their involvement. “This is your chance to get back to why you chose law school in the first place: to help people,” said Ellen Miller, CLA’s Associate Executive Director, Initiatives and External Relations “Pro bono work is ’feel good work,’” Miller said. “You have an impact, whether that means you’re going to take on an asylum case which could go for months, or it means you’re going to go on a virtual clinic and help clients for half a day fill out paperwork. It can be meaningful no matter what the lawyer’s contribution.”

“We have an obligation to help,” Varanini noted. “It’s part of us giving to our local communities and to the public in a time when the needs are dire and the access to justice gap so large.” Pro bono isn’t required in California, but many law firms and attorneys are leaning hard into it in many different ways. That stems from what pro bono expert Jack W. Londen, executive director of the California Access to Justice Commission, said was a push by national ranking systems to include a firm’s pro bono work in its calculations. Becoming a top-ranked law firm began to depend in part on the amount and quality of pro bono work, and it pushed law firms to embrace the area like never before. “It’s been institutionalized as part of what large firms need to do in order to feel entitled to respect,” said Londen, a partner at Morrison & Foerster LLP.

It’s also easy for small firms and solo practitioners to find opportunities that fit them, said James Crosby, a solo practitioner in San Diego. “There are pro bono opportunities everywhere,” Crosby said. “All you have to do is search them out, raise your hand and jump in.”

American Lawyer Magazine led the way for the normalization of pro bono work in the legal profession, with ratings that “not only specifically included pro bono work but made one metric of pro bono the easiest, most manageable way to improve their standing, and law firms know that,” Londen said.

That normalization has reaped huge benefits in terms of the number of attorneys working pro bono, and the amount of work they do, let alone the creative or innovative ways in which they can and do serve.  It’s also over time increased the need for more discussion about the other benefits of pro bono work, particularly the personal fulfillment so many attorneys get from it and how that benefits their firms.

“The ratings part convinces the chalk and pencil people in firms that they’re not hurting themselves by allowing lawyers to do pro bono work,” Londen said. “The most important thing is to create opportunities with low entry overhead to try it out and to encourage that to happen at the beginning of a career. Then have good encouraging permission to do it on a continuing basis.”

For smaller operations, pro bono also offers growth and development for attorneys looking to expand their skills and experience. It’s also easy to get involved at any career stage. Crosby’s been a lawyer for 37 years, but he didn’t start pursuing pro bono until about 15 years ago. He started with single-person issues such as asylum cases, and he’s since embraced more multi-faceted work, including a housing desegregation case in San Diego he found through his alma mater, University of San Diego. “They run the gamut, and they’re all essential and important,” Crosby said. “It’s all just about what you want to do.”

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the need for legal assistance in many critical areas, and it has led to new commitments from some firms such as dedicating entire classes of summer associates to only pro bono work. Pro bono is a fantastic training ground, and it’s an important component of law firm retention. Allowing attorneys to pursue fulfilling pro bono work aids recruitment and retention efforts, and it helps develop even experienced attorneys as they work new practice areas and explore new legal theories. Recruitment and retention were major factors in pro bono’s expansion, Londen said, and they continue to motivate firms as they dedicate support staff and other resources to pursuing major pro bono work. “When you tell lawyers that they can do pro bono work they believe it, you end up with some terrifically capable lawyers for all purposes, billable and otherwise, and they stay,” Londen said. 

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