I have often been told that life experiences will alter the philosophy of the young. The addition of years of events and happenings, both bad and good, shape one’s thoughts on individual situations. While there are some areas where this is far from true, and those ideals I hold so dear about “liberty and justice for all” have not wavered for nearly 40 years, I believe the reasons why we do pro bono work have profoundly shifted.
As a young college student, and then law student aiming for a career in public interest law, I would have answered this question with: “Of course it matters.” Each lawyer representing an individual below the poverty guideline should be doing it for the greater good, only out of the goodness of their heart, and with a desire to solve the world’s ills, one pro bono case at a time. I truly believed that if the lawyer was doing the work for any other motivation, the client and the work would suffer.
That philosophy carried me through my time as a Domestic Violence Staff Attorney at a legal clinic in Houston, as my contact with lawyers in the private sector was pretty limited. I continued to believe that the only people who could do this important work for those in need were lawyers who were driven by the sole motivation of helping to help. Ah, the legal aid days.
This is where I can tell you, I am so thrilled I was wrong. Doing pro bono work because it is meaningful, fulfilling and the “right thing to do” are good reasons to do pro bono work, but they aren’t the only reasons. Pro bono work provides many things to lawyers and law firms that are separate and apart from the desire to help, and they are discussed often in articles like “Making the Business Case for Pro Bono,” written by Esther Lardent in the early 1990s.
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, it became clear that pro bono work provided benefits to lawyers and law firms that had not previously been recognized.
- Recruiting: Law students were more focused on identifying firms who would provide them a platform for them to do the work meaningful to them.
- Retention: Lawyers wanted to make sure that they could continue the work that they found meaningful to them.
- Professional Development: Law firms believed that working a pro bono case would provide the stand-up training that all lawyers need, and junior lawyers were desperate for the skills.
- Business Development: Corporate legal departments were beginning to inquire about the pro bono work that their law firms were engaging in, encouraging law firms to step up their pro bono game.
- Morale: Lawyers, in being permitted and encouraged to do pro bono work, enjoy a boost in morale, impacting that impacts the way they feel about their work. , as well as
- Marketing: Enhancement of the lawyers’ reputations and that of their law firm, which is promoted and recognized throughout their community.
The recognition of these business benefits of pro bono has led to the increased professionalism of pro bono work across the country. The Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo) was founded in 2006 by six pro bono counsel. By the next year, the membership of APBCo full time pro bono counsel managing law firm pro bono programs was a total of 40. In 2017, there are now nearly 200 APBCo members. Law firms recognized that pro bono work was not only the right thing to do, but an important part of their business model. This professionalism of pro bono has had an incredible impact on the sophistication of pro bono work offered across the country, as well as the impact of more individuals and organizations having access to the legal system. In 2016, 135 firms reported performing an aggregated total of 4,677,393 hours of pro bono work, which is an increase from each of the prior years. Since 1995, law firm lawyers have donated 69 million pro bono hours.
It is clear that this impact is made by lawyers and law firms who are doing pro bono exclusively because it is the right thing to do, and those who are doing it in order to achieve other professional goals.
So, does it matter why we do it if so many people are getting good and quality legal help? I no longer think so. However, we do know from a recent law firm social sciences study, that despite all of the above, and despite the importance of all of the business case reasons for doing pro bono, that when asked, law firm lawyers still use “because it makes me feel good” as the primary reason that they do pro bono.
Bottom Line: Lawyers do, and law firms encourage, pro bono work primarily because it is the right thing to do. However, to ignore other motivating factors, and other benefits that pro bono may provide individual lawyers and law firms, or to “require” that lawyers only do work for this primary purpose, would only stand in the way of more people having the access to lawyers they so desperately need.