As attorneys, we are fortunate to be in a profession that provides a unique and meaningful opportunity to serve our community. Pro bono service allows us to put our specialized skills and experience to work to better the lives of those in need.
Law firms and businesses recognize the importance of giving back to the communities that are the foundation of their organizations’ success, and they recognize that doing so makes sound business sense. By contributing to the strength of our communities, we preserve and build upon an infrastructure that ensures the future success of our firms and organizations.
As the market changes and our legal careers progress, attorneys face new opportunities and new challenges in fulfilling our commitment to service. In-house counsel focus on developing a broad range of skills, managing strict time constraints, and making a valuable contribution to mitigate the risk and further the success of their sole client—their company. Meanwhile, in a law firm environment, a focus on billable hours, business development, and establishing a niche practice is ever-present.
These realities can impact how we answer our call to service in one of two ways. We can either put our service on hold for a more convenient time (that may never present itself), or we can do what we do best as lawyers: come up with creative ways to get it all done.
Developing a Business Relationship by Becoming Partners in Service
One way attorneys take the latter approach is by drawing upon existing business relationships to serve their community together. Teaming up to help someone in need not only furthers the business relationship, but it adds a new dimension to that relationship and to the business itself, establishing the business’s place in the fabric of the community that it depends on for its success.
A team approach also alleviates many of the pressures and concerns that pose challenges for volunteer attorneys. For example, as one team member’s schedule may be more hectic, the other’s may be more manageable, allowing the team to continue to move forward on its service project. This would not necessarily be the case for team members in the same organization, who often face similar deadlines and time constraints. Additionally, a team approach affords an opportunity to get to know one’s team members, creating a built-in networking and business development component. And, of course, two can achieve more than one—having a teammate cuts down on the work and allows the team members to leverage each person’s strengths and experience to best serve their pro bono clients.
Finding a Project to Suit a Team’s Needs, Interests, and Availability
Pro bono programs have also gotten creative in adapting to the practical realities facing attorneys. For example, recognizing that some organizations have limited professional liability coverage, many programs offer professional liability coverage for their volunteers. Programs are also proactive in providing practice resources and mentors to help volunteer attorneys, particularly those taking on pro bono matters in new areas of the law.
In addition, many pro bono programs have changed the way they package the pro bono services they offer to make the commitment easier for volunteers to manage. This may entail advance scheduling of volunteer shifts, prior screening of cases to create better volunteer-project matches, reporting of pro bono hours on the volunteer’s behalf, and streamlined online trainings. Training sessions, whether electronic or live, offer a great opportunity for team members to begin their relationship as partners in service and learn more about their pro bono project together.
Many pro bono programs use a clinic format, through which volunteers assist clients with basic legal matters during scheduled hours. The advantages of volunteering through a legal clinic are the limited time commitment and predictable scope of representation. Clinics are very manageable for busy schedules and are conducive to a team experience, allowing team members to book their clinic hours in advance at the same time.
Other projects can be equally manageable with the division of labor that the team approach allows. For example, team members representing a pro bono client in a litigation matter can divide tasks according to the team members’ individual strengths and availability. If one team member has a depth of litigation experience or works closer to the courthouse, that member could be responsible for court appearances, while the other member might handle critical research issues, drafting pleadings, or client communications. In this way, both team members have an opportunity to draw on each other’s expertise to enjoy a rewarding experience that they might not otherwise be able to take on.
Finally, presentations can be a great way for a team to work together to provide helpful legal information to those who need it. Whether presenting a topic of interest at a local library or providing training to legal aid staff on a subject that affects their pro bono clients, presentations provide an opportunity for team members to pool their resources and expertise to benefit those who need their help.
Forming a Team and Getting Started
For opportunities to form business and service partnerships, attorneys need look no further than their own business contacts to form a team. To find a pro bono program that suits a team’s interests and availability, a good place to start is the region’s local legal aid organization. Every legal aid organization has a pro bono coordinator who helps volunteers find pro bono opportunities that are right for them. Tampa-based Bay Area Legal Services, St. Petersburg-based Community Law Program, and Sarasota-based Legal Aid of Manasota, for example, all have a variety of pro bono opportunities and resources available for volunteers.
In a local effort to help attorneys form pro bono teams, the Tampa Bay Pro Bono Partners was founded to provide a platform for attorneys from local law firms and businesses to provide pro bono service together. The project helps match volunteers with other team members and pro bono projects that fit their needs, interests, and availability. The Pro Bono Partners held its second annual reception on November 4, 2015, with keynote speaker Jim Shimberg of the Tampa Bay Lightning and a message of judicial support from the Honorable Julie S. Sneed and the Honorable Christopher C. Nash. Association of Corporate Counsel members, John Bencivenga, Kristen Chittenden, Danna Haydar, Sam Hijab, Trish Huie, Lisa Pach, Jeffrey Pegler, Lauren Pilkington-Rich, Kevin Rudolph, and Sunjay Trehan, are all serving their community through the Tampa Bay Pro Bono Partners, a project of the Hillsborough County Bar Association’s Corporate Counsel Section co-chaired by ACC members John Bencivenga and Michael Stein.
Kim Limer chairs the ACC West Central Florida Chapter’s Community Outreach Committee, which offers a variety of pro bono opportunities to ACC members. Ms. Limer states, “Community outreach, including pro bono service, is a core value of the Association of Corporate Counsel, and our members are proud to take the lead in finding innovative ways to serve our community.” The Chapter has also been successful in promoting a pro bono initiative called the Community Counsel Program, through which members Oliver Janney, Jennifer Bumbalough, Vashti Jattansingh, Dierdre White, Mark Osborne, Andy Gaunce, Matt Hitchcock, and Kim Limer have partnered with Community Law Program to serve local nonprofit organizations in need of assistance with issues such as incorporation, 501(c)(3) status, policy review, and legal education.
A team is always greater than the sum of its parts. Taking our business partnerships to the next level to serve our community is a unique and effective way to help those who need it most, to serve our communities, and to grow our business relationships.