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Summer Forum 2013: Pro Bono Work Is Not Just For Litigators!

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By Aleta Sprague

On Thursday we’ll be holding our 2013 Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum. At the Summer Forum, law students and young lawyers will hear from attorneys in a range of public interest fields, with panels ranging from criminal law to family law to international human rights.

We’re previewing each of the panels. Our third installment looks at pro bono opportunities for those who aren’t litigators. (Read our first installment on civil rights/civil liberties practice, and our second installment on criminal defense.)

For new attorneys, taking on pro bono cases can be a great way to develop litigation skills while simultaneously filling a serious need for legal services within their community. Yet there are also extensive opportunities for transactional lawyers and other non-litigators to do pro bono work. A 2005 survey by the American Bar Association found that the top three areas of practice for pro bono hours are family law, business law, and consumer law. For example, attorneys can help non-profit organizations draft contracts, secure tax-exempt status, and handle real estate transactions. And skills common to business lawyers such as careful listening, problem solving, and negotiating complex bureaucracies have clear applicability to pro bono work.

Yet the ABA survey also found that younger lawyers are far less likely than their older counterparts to engage in pro bono activities. This year’s Transactional and Non-Litigation Pro Bono session is designed to inspire new attorneys to take on this type of work and provide some guidance about the wide range of opportunities available to suit a variety of interests and skills.

Susan Hoffman, the Public Service Partner at Crowell & Moring, will serve as moderator, and graciously took the time to answer some of my questions in advance. Below is our Q&A:

Are there any particular courses, law school activities, or summer experiences you would recommend for law students interested in a non-litigation public interest career?

There are clinics at some law schools that involve non-litigation projects that I would recommend. For example, at one law school, there is a consumer clinic that enlists students to assist in negotiating resolutions for clients.

How does a new associate become involved with their firm’s pro bono practice? Are there leadership opportunities for junior attorneys?

The best way for a new associate to get involved with the firm’s pro bono practice is to seek out and arrange a meeting with the firm’s pro bono coordinator. If the firm does not have a full-time coordinator, find out which attorney chairs the firm’s pro bono committee and express your interest. Taking the initiative will leave a favorable impression on that coordinator/attorney and get results.

What skills and qualities enable you to be successful in your position?

I think that creativity, patience as well as a willingness to listen closely to clients about their goals and needs has helped me to be successful in my position.

What is your favorite thing about your job? What are the key challenges?

I find it rewarding and professionally and personally satisfying to think that the work that I do makes a difference–in some cases for an individual and in others for our community as a whole. The biggest challenge that I face is saying “No”–in turning down projects or individuals seeking help–either because they do not qualify for pro bono services or because I don’t have attorneys with time and expertise to help.

What can Forum attendees expect to learn during your breakout session?

Attendees will learn about ways in which nonlitigation pro bono work can make a significant difference for others and for the community and how it can be just as personally rewarding as litigation pro bono work.

Any other tips for law students interested in this practice area?

I would recommend being open to trying new types of cases/projects. You never know when you will hit upon a case or project that inspires you!

Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.