The legal sector is expanding its reach and methods of giving back. From financial scholarships to hands-on charity work, attorneys are waking up to the benefits of philanthropy.
Pro bono publico translates as “for the public good.” The shortened version, pro bono, has become synonymous with legal services provided without charge, usually to those who can’t afford representation or for causes considered to benefit society.
The American Bar Association suggests that lawyers contribute 50 hours of unpaid legal services per year, ostensibly to contribute to that common good and repay society for the benefits associated with being attorneys. Of course, burnishing the reputation of an all too often maligned profession is a not unintended side benefit of such altruism.
Traditionally, most pro bono work was conducted on a one-to-one basis i.e., lawyers helping individuals with specific legal needs, such as representing an indigent family in housing court or helping an undocumented immigrant who arrived as a child, obtain legal residency.
However, like essentially all aspects of the legal profession, the way attorneys fulfill their pro bono commitments has evolved over time. Volunteer legal work is now performed in myriad ways, including financial support provided through firm foundations and engaging employees in non-legal service work. Many large firms have entire pro bono departments dedicated to the public good and, not coincidentally, their own reputations. Often this results in pro bono work contributing to the “double bottom line” i.e., enhancing the attorneys’ altruistic bona fides which in turn generates billable work stemming from the good will generated by their pro bono efforts.
To be sure, most of the pro bono work is still of the traditional “free legal services” variety, usually performed by summer associates, law graduates and new attorneys under the guidance of a more seasoned lawyer. However, more and more firms are requiring employees at every level to contribute their time to altruistic causes.
Whether it’s a group of lawyers planting vegetables in a community garden or building homes for the underprivileged under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity, the definition of pro bono work has morphed far beyond anything its progenitors would have considered to meet the definition of that term, as have the benefits for all involved.
Of course, the recipients of pro bono work by lawyers still include the tenant facing eviction who can’t afford an attorney to represent her in housing court. However, those who benefit from pro bono work by lawyers outside the practice of law now includes those whose neighborhood will be beautified, and those who will have a home because of projects like the community garden and Habitat for Humanity work. And, just as the type of pro bono work and the direct beneficiaries thereof have expanded over time, so have the benefits enjoyed by the lawyers who do that work and, their employers.
Now, associates at white shoe firms don’t just bond while commiserating over their 90-hour work weeks. Instead, they spend time together taking part in altruistic activities having nothing to do with mergers and acquisitions or tax strategies. Like executive retreats involving trust falls that make for so much sitcom fodder, group pro bono work that benefits an entire neighborhood is an opportunity for lawyers to work together and rely on each other to solve problems in ways that transfer meaningfully from the community garden to the conference room. In turn, this makes them more effective and, therefore, more valuable team members, adding yet another way in which pro bono publico work improves the lives of everyone involved.