Selfless Taking - A Reasoned Approach to Pro Bono

As a new lawyer, and an even newer solo practitioner, I have sought out the advice of more experienced attorneys. Needless to say, starting a private practice requires confidence, and succeeding in private practice requires both patience and tenacity. In addition to these and other character traits, a solid business plan is very important.

One particular piece of advice has made a very big difference. In pursuit of this advice, I have devoted a significant portion of my time during my initial start-up months to pro bono representation. For those who do not know, bar associations encourage lawyers to volunteer a portion of their services to the indigent for free. The Sixth Amendment guarantees effective assistance of counsel to criminal defendants, and the Office of the Public Defender in New Jersey assures this right is provided to indigent defendants. But there is no analogous right to counsel for individuals in any other litigation. Nevertheless, many states have organizations to fill the gap. Legal Services of New Jersey plays that role in this state.

Helping the poor, like any idealistic aspiration, can provide personal fulfillment. In addition to this and other idealistic reasons, many practical motivations exist for solo practitioners to devote a portion of their time to pro bono clients.

First, general practitioners are certainly encouraged to refine and expand their skill set. This endeavor results, of course, in a broader scope of expertise. As a new lawyer, this is imperative. Similar to employers who narrow the scope of employment opportunities to experienced applicants, prospective clients demand the same, especially in exchange for the legal fees they will be expected to pay. Pro bono representation provides an excellent opportunity for a lawyer to gain practical, hands-on experience. Although the representation will be free, in the future the lawyer can do the same work based on his pro bono experience and earn a fee.

Second, lawyers must stay on top of legal developments that relate to their field of practice. Perhaps the most common way lawyers fulfill this obligation is to attend Continuing Legal Education courses. An alternative is to gain practical experience handling files on a volunteer basis.

Finally, pro bono volunteerism goes hand-in-hand with professional networking. In addition to establishing oneself among other lawyers, a volunteer lawyer may receive a referral for an individual who does not qualify for pro bono services but cannot pay the full fee lawyers typically charge. The attorney benefits because he adds a new client to his base, and the individual benefits from an attorney willing to charge a discounted fee and perhaps even arrange a payment plan.

In conclusion, an apropos aphorism comes to mind. "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" The reasons explained above illustrate only a few of the practical considerations for solo practitioners to participate in pro bono volunteerism.