By Justin L. Heather
Justin L. Heather is a founding partner of Korey, Cotter, Heather & Richardson LLC, where he practices complex commercial litigation. He is also the chairman of The Chicago Bar Association Young Lawyers Section for the 2011-2012 bar year. His focuses on lawyers in service.
Lawyers historically celebrate pro bono service during October. Chicago lawyers have a proud tradition of providing pro bono legal services to the community's least fortunate as well as donating millions of dollars each year to support the various legal aid organizations in the Chicago metropolitan area. These efforts and contributions reflect great pride upon the Chicago legal community and are a hallmark of the good within the profession as a whole. In addition, these donations of time and money are essential to providing representation to the most underserved populations within our community.
Pro bono service, however, helps lawyers develop their skills and legal practices. Those who have never had the pleasure of providing pro bono legal services may wonder how such volunteer work can help a lawyer develop their legal skills or enhance their professional profile. With the appropriate mindset and approach, pro bono cases provide lawyers with a number of tools that translate directly to their paying-client work and develop immeasurable leadership skills.
The current economic climate means there is an acute need for legal aid for low-income citizens. While this may appeal to the altruistic nature of lawyers as a whole, it does not necessarily address the importance of pro bono service as a tool for professional development. These same economic challenges, however, may also make pro bono service a particularly appealing option for several segments of the legal community. The following groups of lawyers may find particular benefit in providing legal services to the less fortunate: recent graduates without gainful legal employment, young lawyers on heavily staffed cases and lawyers that seek more courtroom experience and client exposure. On the other hand, every lawyer should consider the following observations in determining whether to take on pro bono representation.
Practical legal skills. Although the subject matter may be different from paying work, pro bono cases allow lawyers to develop legal skills applicable to their practices. For example, it may be outside the substantive focus of a family law practitioner, but representing a political asylum candidate in proceedings before the Department of Homeland Security provides practical experience in the area of client intake, case development, presentation of testimony and adversarial proceedings. Similarly, the incorporation of a 501(c)(3) entity may be far simpler than a complex merger, but the experience provides the lawyer with practical legal experience in corporate law.
Enhancing writing skills. Ask any legal writing professional and they will tell you that the best way to improve your writing is by actually writing. Put simply, practice makes perfect. Regardless of the subject matter or practice setting, pro bono cases provide the practitioner with another opportunity to develop and hone legal writing skills. Brief writing and drafting corporate documents for low-income or indigent clients allow lawyers to improve their writing skills and better serve their paying clients.
Courtroom experience. For a variety of reasons, ranging from economic realities to constraints on state budgets, actual trials rarely happen in commercial litigation. The vast majority of these cases settle well before or on the eve of trial. As a result, litigators generally lack extensive trial court experience. Conversely, whether it is a matter of principle or different economic incentives, pro bono cases actually proceed to trial more often than their commercial counterparts. Regardless of the substantive case law at issue, actual trial time provides lawyers with practical experience in witness examination, argument and the rules of evidence as well as the unique and limited qualification of actual trial practice.
Client contact. Working with clients is often one of the most challenging aspects of the practice of law. From balancing competing client demands to understanding client needs, like any other legal skill, lawyers must work on developing their ability to productively work with clients and effectively represent their needs. Indigent clients are often unfamiliar with the legal system and their expectations may not be realistic. By working with low-income clients and helping to educate them about the legal process, lawyers are better equipped to work with paying clients, educate them about the legal system and properly manage their expectations.
Expanding your network and developing leadership skills. In addition to direct legal aid, most legal aid organizations have advisory boards or auxiliary/young professional boards, the latter of which are generally comprised of younger lawyers. Participating on these governing boards provides guidance to the organization and allows participating lawyers the opportunity to develop corporate governance and leadership skills. In addition, serving on governing boards provides an excellent networking opportunity to connect with lawyers and other professionals.
Other "soft" skills. Representing indigent clients also provides lawyers with the opportunity to develop "soft" skills that directly translate to their everyday practices. For example, working on a pro bono case or project allows lawyers to learn how to manage junior lawyers or operate as part of a team. Lawyers may also learn about effective communication skills with clients, a tribunal and opposing attorneys. Like any other case or project, organizational and time management skills are learned and developed while representing pro bono clients.
In sum, pro bono cases provide an excellent opportunity for lawyers, younger and more seasoned, to hone their practice skills and build their reputation as a practitioner. Young lawyers should especially take advantage of pro bono projects and cases because they often provide opportunities that are not necessarily available on paying client cases. For example, paying clients often insist on partner representation at the negotiating table, in court or other formal proceedings. Pro bono cases thus provide opportunities that may not otherwise be available to less experienced lawyers.