I want to get this out of the way right in the beginning — if your idea of pro bono work is that you parachute in like a white knight for a few hours to “fight for justice” and fix the life of an eternally grateful client, please stop. It’s not like that, and you’ll just be disappointed.
Your client might hate you (or, at a minimum, blame you for only getting them 80% of what they wanted), justice might turn out to be a lot messier than you expected, and — I can pretty much guarantee this is the case — it’s all going to take a lot more time and effort than you anticipated.
That being said, it’s still one of the best things you can do. For the world, and for yourself.
7 Reasons You Should Do Pro Bono Work
In no particular order, seven good reasons you should do pro bono work:
- It’s scary. If the scariest thing that happens to you in three years of law school is getting cold-called in Civ Pro, you’ve missed the point. There’s a reason you “practice” law. (Has anyone ever said “I’m a learning lawyer”? No, you’re a practicing lawyer.) Being a lawyer is scary. I’ve seen high-powered BigLaw partners quaking in their boots before a hearing. The sooner you get scared, and go in and do whatever it is you need to do anyway, the sooner you’ll be on your way to competence. Doing pro bono work, specifically for individual clients, is the fastest way to get over the idea that being scared is a legitimate reason not to do something.
- It’s frustrating. If you’ve never set foot in a state or local court, you have no idea what “access to justice” really looks like. Law school doesn’t teach you anything about the legal system as most people experience it. If you spend three years reading federal appellate decisions and talking about theories of justice, you’ll end up with a very, very warped idea of the profession you’re entering. It’s just not like that. It’s messy, it’s frustrating, and it can all seem very unfair sometimes. The sooner you encounter that reality, the better. (And, in the ideal, your encounter with the real world might just inform the way you interpret some of those high-falutin’ opinions.)
- People really need your help. Let’s face it — pro bono is code for “Someone who desperately needs help with something important, and can’t possibly get it using their available resources.” This is real-life, big-time, serious stuff: Will you have a roof over your head? Can your kids eat? Will you be allowed to see your kids? The bottom line: If you don’t help, who will?
- It gives you perspective. Try not to take offense at this, but — simply by virtue of the fact that you’ve ended up in law school at this moment in time — you are one of the most privileged people to ever walk the planet. It’s true. I know you worked hard to get where you are, but you didn’t do it by yourself. Through some combination of genetic luck, resources from your family and society, and just the good fortune of having been born when and where you were, you’ve got the world at your fingertips. If you want to make money, you can make money. If you want to do good, you can do good. If you just want to slack off and have a coffee at Starbucks (or, preferably, your local coffee purveyor), you can do that. Lots of people aren’t in such a fortunate position. Once you’ve spent a couple of hours listening to your new client explain how she lost her job at Toys R Us because her child was sick one day too many, and wondering why the company’s contesting her unemployment benefits, and what she’s supposed to do for rent money, it’s hard to stress out too much over your latest class reading. In the big picture, this is a good thing.
- You’ll start understanding what resources you have. As a first-semester 1L, I took on a pro bono case. It was supposed to be pretty simple — go to Bronx family court one night and help someone fill out the paperwork for a restraining order. It rapidly turned into the total bane of my existence. My client, who I thought I’d only spend a few hours with, started calling me incessantly with questions. Given that I’d been in law school a few weeks at that point, I couldn’t answer any of them. But what I eventually understood was that I — simply by virtue of being in law school — had resources that she absolutely could not access. I had Westlaw and Lexis access. I could go to professors’ office hours. I could call up random people who might be able to help and ask them to answer my questions. Using these resources, I could figure it out. And I did. Once you know it’s possible, it starts to seem routine.
- It teaches you to deal with competing demands. There will be time when your class work and your pro bono work conflict. (For me, it was at the end of my first semester, when I had to make an appearance in the Bronx during one of my last Contracts classes.) When this conflict arises, it will give you a chance to think about the sort of priorities you’re willing to set. Do you tell your client you can’t make the hearing, or do you skip the class? This might be an unpleasant choice, but I don’t think it’s a hard one. Having had practice making it, you’ll be better able to set boundaries in the post-school working world, where your willingness to make tough decisions on how to spend your time is the only thing that will keep you sane.
- It’s kind of fun! Finally, probably the best reason of all. It’s actually a lot of fun to dress up in a pinstripe suit and pretend you’re a lawyer. (Not that you should hold yourself out as a lawyer if you’re not one, of course, but everyone will assume you’re one if you look like one, so it doesn’t really matter if you’re not, technically.) Even if your client is a total pain, and doesn’t appreciate what you’re doing as much as you think she should, or the case doesn’t go all that well, or whatever, I at least always got a little thrill when I marched into the courthouse, briefcase in tow. For that one moment, at a minimum, you can say to yourself, “Oh, yeah. I’m going to be a real lawyer!” Whatever happens after that is just a learning experience anyway.
So, there you have it. Get out there and give it a shot!
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