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Getting Into the Pro Bono Game

Using your paralegal experience to start a firm-wide volunteer program.

By  Lori Thompson

January/February 2006 Table of Contents

 

Many paralegals and attorneys enter the legal field because they enjoy helping others, and some are passionate about providing legal services to those who canít afford it. Every attorney is asked to make an hourly commitment to provide pro bono service each year. The American Bar Associationís Rule 6.1, Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service, states that ďevery lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.Ē

Paralegals also are asked to make an annual commitment to pro bono. Canon 1.4 of the National Federation of Paralegal Associationsí Model Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility and Guidelines for Enforcement states that every paralegal should aspire to contribute 24 hours of pro bono service annually. The National Association of Legal Assistants doesnít have an official policy regarding pro bono work by paralegals, but such activities are encouraged. In the comments to Guideline No. 4 of NALAís Annotated Model Standards and Guidelines for Utilization of Legal Assistants, it states, ďThe working relationship between the lawyer and the legal assistant should extend to cooperative efforts on public service activities where possible.Ē

While many attorneys and paralegals are interested in pro bono work, the challenge is determining how to get the ball rolling. Regardless of whether your firm has a pro bono program that needs re-energizing, or you are treading into new territory to develop a firm-wide pro bono program, the best way to start is with the four Rís of pro bono: recruiting, retaining, recording and recognition.

Recruiting

The key to recruitment is explaining the value of pro bono work and showing co-workers what giving their time to volunteer work can do for them. Develop a marketing plan that emphasizes how the program provides your co-workers something they canít find or acquire anywhere else.

First, talk with your co-workers, attorneys and paralegals and find out about any pro bono projects they are already involved in. For example, a paralegal might already be part of a local paralegal association pro bono program, or perhaps an attorney is part of a monthly legal clinic.

Next, research the local opportunities in your area. Contact the local bar association and nonprofit organizations such as Neighborhood Legal Services, Court Appointed Special Advocates, Legal Aid or other legal services offices. You also can obtain information from the ABAís Directory of Pro Bono Programs and the Lawyers Diary and Manual. Many local bar associations organize pro bono fairs where nonprofit organizations distribute materials about their programs. Donít walk away from opportunities for secretaries and administrative staff, as well as attorneys and paralegals. The goal is to provide a variety of opportunities that will appeal to all of your co-workers.

After you come up with some ideas for projects, talk with one of your attorneys or a legal administrator about scheduling an informal meeting to determine if there is interest in the firm. The attorney or legal administrator can assist you in navigating the political waters that are unique for every law firm, corporation or government agency. They might be willing to talk to a managing partner on your behalf. The goal is to find a mentor. For the program to succeed, remember that support comes from the top. Co-workers will support your program if the senior attorneys are supportive or involved.

Once you have approval to go forward, schedule an informal meeting during lunchtime. Come to the meeting prepared with information and enthusiasm. Your excitement will be contagious. Prepare a sign-in sheet (name, e-mail and telephone number) and brief survey to document interests and time commitments. Once you have an interested group, you can form a pro bono committee and choose someone to lead the group (co-chairs or co-coordinators between an attorney and paralegal). Include your mentor or sponsor from the firmís management, if possible. If you have a really motivated group, you might try rotating the leadership for the meetings.

Once you have a committee and a list of interests, determine what projects your firm will support and establish a list of pre-approved pro bono activities. These projects can be advertised on the firmís internal Web page. For example, law firms and federal agencies in Washington, D.C., sign up to host a monthly Advice & Referral Legal Clinic organized by the District of Columbia Bar. Your firm might choose a specific clinic in which the firm commits to providing attorneys and paralegals. The commitment is minimal (three to four hours on a Saturday), and there is no commitment beyond the clinic. I have volunteered for most of the clinics that my agency has hosted. Itís an amazing experience when team-building and camaraderie develop while spending time with your co-workers outside of the regular work environment.

From the beginning, the firm should have a pro bono statement that: shows commitment to pro bono activities as an important element of professional responsibility; establishes an annual goal; credits time spent on approved pro bono work toward each attorneyís or paralegalís annual performance goals for purposes of evaluation and compensation; defines the type of work that will qualify as pro bono; and includes national, state or professional annual goals.

A long-term goal for the committee will be to develop a pro bono policy and budget. The policy statement will be the building block for a successful program. This is a road map from which the program will begin and provide flexibility for change as the program grows. In the pro bono policy:

  • Define what will be included as pro bono legal activities.

  • Establish a coordinator or a ≠committee that includes attorneys and paralegals.

  • Explain limitations on pro bono legal services, including details about the types of cases that are prohibited and references to policies or procedures for outside activities.

  • Determine how new volunteer opportunities not on the pre-approved list can become approved.

  • Outline specific procedures for following the firmís conflict of interest system for pro bono cases.

  • Create retainer agreements detailing whether the attorney is representing a client as an individual attorney or on behalf of the law firm or corporation.

  • Determine whether the referring pro bono program or organization has a malpractice insurance policy that covers volunteer attorneys and paralegals.

  • Set guidelines about whether the attorney or paralegal will be allowed to use the firmís letterhead, business cards or other identifying resources when working on volunteer cases.

  • Determine how the attorney or paralegal can use the firmís office equipment, services and clerical staff when doing volunteer work.

  • Set up a procedure for using work hours for pro bono and the expectation that billable client work must be completed in a timely manner for the attorney or paralegal to continue working on pro bono matters.

  • Detail the costs that will be absorbed by the firm or corporation (e.g., filing fees).

  • Determine if pro bono is included with billable hours or is included and reviewed as part of the annual review (considered in setting performance evaluations and compensation).

  • Establish that involvement is voluntary.

Budget issues are important to consider early in the process. A possible ≠concern of the firmís management might be that time spent on pro bono matters will negatively influence the work of the firm. An attorney or paralegal might find volunteer work more rewarding, and his or her regular billable time might not seem as exciting. To address this concern, the committee might consider a maximum hourly limit for the program that can be reviewed annually.

If the firm is willing to absorb some of the costs of pro bono work, the focus can be on establishing an annual recognition program. A budget for an annual luncheon or happy hour event in addition to the cost of plaques can be included. Monthly certificates also can be presented at the committee meetings. Determine where the firm or corporation can support the project and where money will be needed to prevent your co-workers from spending their personal funds.

Retaining

Turnover is healthy, but ideally you want to retain trained volunteers while attracting new ones. The challenge is keeping them interested and involved. Volunteers stay involved if their efforts are appreciated and acknowledged, and if they feel they are making a difference. Make sure your volunteers are treated with respect and are provided the information they need to succeed.

Set up a network to communicate. Develop an internal Web page to advertise local training opportunities, pro bono conferences and clinics. The site also can include links to substantive materials, forms, laws, checklists and tip sheets. For example, www.probono.net is a great resource. It has a variety of information that includes state-specific Web pages with information about cases, library resources, calendars and news. The geographical areas covered include: Washington, D.C., Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Another resource is the ABAís Pro Bono and Public Service Best Practices Resource Guide, an online database of model pro bono and public service programs from all practice areas. A project of the ABA Commission on the Renaissance of Idealism in the Legal Profession, the guide is a tool for legal professionals who want to increase service opportunities in their firm. Legal professionals can access, search and contribute to the guide at: www.abanet.org/renaissance/
bestpractices/home.html
.

Organize regular meetings during lunch to keep everyone motivated and up-to-date about what is happening. Have an agenda, stay focused, keep the meetings short and provide opportunities for everyone to share ideas. Make it easy for your co-workers to get involved and stay involved. Donít overwhelm them with opportunities, and donít pressure them to support every project in the community.

The monthly meetings also can be organized as mini continuing legal education sessions where a representative from the nonprofit organization can provide information about an area of the law that might be new to your firm. For example, if your law firm is going to support a local clinic, help your co-workers feel comfortable with the environment, the issues that are addressed and how to assist the clients. Many clinics provide substantive materials in the areas of law that are addressed. Ask someone to talk about his or her experiences and share tips about what made the experiences successful. Many bar associations schedule pro bono training that is sponsored by a local nonprofit organization that specializes in an area of law. If your co-workers can commit to a pro bono training session, they will have direct contact with organizations that need assistance.

Assess and evaluate the programs in which your co-workers commit their time. The attorneys, paralegals and support staff can provide valuable input. When a co-worker completes a pro bono project, send out a simple survey or provide a link to the Web page where they can complete the survey. Find out if their expectations were met, if they feel their skills were used, and ask for ideas to improve the volunteer experience. Itís also a good idea to get an assessment from the nonprofit organization.

Recording

There are many benefits to keeping track of what your co-workers are doing. The information can be used to present annual pro bono awards, recognize your co-workers in the firmís newsletter, submit your co-workers for state or local bar association awards (attorneys and nonattorneys) and more. This task is manageable if you establish a reporting system early. For firm-sponsored events, have a sign-up sheet. You also can develop a one-page reporting form for the attorneys and para≠legals to use. A sample form is available on NFPAís Web page (go to www.paralegals.org and click on ďpro bonoĒ).

Keeping track of pro bono hours proves to the firm there is a commitment to pro bono and also highlights opportunities that others at the firm might not know exist.

If your firm has a billing code for pro bono hours, include details about the activity. This might be a goal for the second or third year of the program. Once the firm adopts the policy statement and has accepted the pro bono projects chosen by the committee, a pro bono billing code should be established for the attorneys and paralegals to code their time. The system will allow the committee to evaluate the program annually.

Once you get involved in pro bono, donít forget about the ethical obligations that are part of your daily work routine. Use your firmís conflict check system, and confirm with the company for which services are rendered that malpractice insurance is available and covers the attorneys and nonattorneys. Attorneys and paralegals who volunteer in pro bono projects are subject to the same laws, rules and ethical considerations that apply in their employment situations. The same attorney-client privilege exists, conflict of interest checks are necessary and unauthorized practice of law must be avoided.

Recognition

Organize a system to recognize your co-workersí volunteer efforts. Acknowledge the attendees who supported a firm-sponsored clinic on the Web page or in the firmís newsletter. Organize an annual social event where certificates can be presented to everyone who supported the pro bono committee. Consider a Volunteer of the Month Award that is presented at the regular meetings. Also, nominate the attorneys and paralegals for local and national awards. The ABA, and many national and local organizations present annual awards. Your co-workers are providing a service to those in need in your community, but they also are sacrificing their free time, lunchtime and ability to work on other projects during the day. Their dedication changes lives.

Many law firms include information about the firmís commitment to pro bono on the firmís Web page. Web pages can range from having a few paragraphs that basically advertise the firmís commitment to pro bono, to specifically listing projects and cases in which the firm has made major commitments.

The Challenges

We live in busy times, and you are competing with a variety of priorities. You might live in an area where your co-workers commute long distances from their homes. We all have families, community service commitments and limited free time to accomplish nonwork-related responsibilities. You still can achieve success, but time commitments might limit the ability of your co-workers to support an evening or weekend legal clinic.

In the beginning, your co-workers might need to balance their billable hours against pro bono projects. They might not be willing or able to work on more substantive pro bono projects during the day, but might be willing to support a morning, lunchtime, evening or weekend legal clinic. As the firmís management begins to support pro bono, they might be willing to set up a billing code for pro bono and allow a maximum number of hours per month so that no one has to work extra hours to meet their billable hour requirement.

Also, be prepared for varying interests. Everyone has specific areas of interest and might be less enthusiastic about helping with other projects. If you do a thorough job of determining your co-workersí interests, you will not waste valuable time and energy pursuing  opportunities that will not be supported.

Mandatory Pro Bono

The issue of mandatory pro bono is a highly contested topic, but everyone seems to understand the need for some type of requirement for the legal community to at least report their pro bono hours. Currently, only four states have mandatory pro bono reporting requirements for attorneys (Florida, Maryland, Mississippi and Nevada) and eight states have rejected mandatory pro bono reporting (Colorado, Indiana, Massa≠chusetts, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Utah). Twelve states have voluntary pro bono reporting (Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Washington), and two states are considering voluntary pro bono reporting (Michigan and Vermont).

The good news is many law firms have adopted the ABAís Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge to increase their pro bono legal services to at least 3 percent of the firmís total billable hours. One Albany, N.Y., firm, Gordon, Siegel, Mastro, Mullaney, Gordon & Galvin, went a step further and introduced a mandatory firm-wide pro bono program. Partners and associates have the same 24-hour annual goal. Low-performing partners must pay their $200 hourly rate for each hour they fall short to a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to the indigent.

While most firms are not at this point yet, pro bono work is an important part of the legal profession. Legal professionals volunteer their time because they are dedicated to the program or clients being served. Starting or revamping a firm-wide pro bono program can be rewarding to individual attorneys and paralegals and the firm as a whole.

 


 

Lori Thompson currently is serving as the National Federation of Paralegal Associationsí pro bono coordinator and NFPAís liaison to the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono Public Service. She was the recipient of NFPAís 2000 Individual Pro Bono Award. Thompson is a paralegal specialist for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she has been employed since March 1991. She currently is working with the Consumer/Compliance Unit.

 

 

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