What’s the best way for young lawyers to get involved in pro bono work? The panelists for last week’s Philadelphia Bar Association Young Lawyers Division “Spotlight on Pro Bono” panel unanimously said, “Just do it!”
To kick off the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Pro Bono Week, Oct. 22-29, a panel of young attorneys from different sections of the legal community got together at the Philadelphia Bar Association to discuss how they became involved in pro bono work, and how others can get started.
Philadelphia’s Pro Bono Week coincided with National Pro Bono Week, an American Bar Association-sponsored event now in its second year.
The discussion began with John Savoth, current vice chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association and of counsel with Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, speaking on the importance of not only pro bono work, but also getting outside of one’s chosen field.
“Pro bono work is a chance to take on a case that is really a cause,” he said, “and as chancellor in 2012, I plan on making pro bono work a priority for the bar association.”
Each of the attorneys on the panel had already taken Savoth’s words to heart, as many of them are involved in pro bono work that is not directly related to their areas of practice. They represent various organizations such as Philadelphia VIP, SeniorLAW Center, Support Center for Child Advocates and the Juvenile Law Center.
The panel consisted of five attorneys and moderator Roxanne Crowley, staff attorney for Community Legal Services.
Matt Olesh, an associate at Fox Rothschild and Philadelphia VIP volunteer, said he got involved with pro bono work because “we have a duty to provide people with legal help who otherwise could not afford it.”
Others echoed this sentiment about giving back to the community, as well as the idea that pro bono is not only beneficial to the people being represented, but to the attorneys representing them as well.
Olesh added that it is an opportunity for new lawyers to manage their own cases, as opposed to being given cases to work by their respective firms.
Andy Boczkowski, senior in-house counsel with GlaxoSmithKline and another Philadelphia VIP volunteer, added that at the beginning of his career he “forgot” about doing pro bono, a common malady among many young lawyers.
“I was focused on advancing my career,” he said, “and it took one of the firm’s partners, who I greatly admired, to get me involved.”
Each panel member also gave examples of cases they had worked on, from custody battles to helping people keep their homes. They unanimously said that while the work was challenging, it was also incredibly rewarding to know that they were helping someone who otherwise would not have access to legal counsel
Jason Conn, an associate at Morgan Lewis & Bockius and SeniorLAW Center volunteer, recalled one of his first cases in which he was helping to get benefits reinstated for the wife of a deceased man. The case was difficult, he said, because the couple only had a common-law marriage, and it was hard to prove that this woman was entitled to her husband’s benefits.
But while digging through old documents, “I had one of those ‘Law & Order’ moments,” he said, “where suddenly everything fell into place and we were able to win this woman the benefits she deserved.”
As one of her questions to the panel, Crowley asked how it was possible to balance paid work and pro bono work. Michele Purdue Dean, a solo practitioner and volunteer at the Support Center for Child Advocates, said she took time off from paid work when she was taking care of her family.
“During this time I still kept my cases at the Support Center,” she said, “and it allowed me to continue to practice law and see the benefit of my education and skills.” She also added when she decides to return to paid work she will be able to show future employers that she still has relevant experience.
To this Olesh added, “Never subordinate pro bono to other work; these clients are no different from the ones you encounter at your firm.”
The most important aspect of being able to do pro bono work successfully, said the panel, is having an employer who is supportive. Boczkowski said that when finding outside firms to work with GlaxoSmithKline, they take the firms’ commitment to pro bono work under serious consideration.
“Pro bono work makes individuals and firms more well-rounded, gives them more client experience, and exposes them to different kinds of courts,” he said.
Rebecca Santoro, an associate at Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin and a Juvenile Law Center volunteer, said that pro bono work also benefits law firms by creating attention for the firm, which in turn can lead to networking opportunities.
For instance, Santoro and a group of attorneys from her firm have been working with the Juvenile Law Center representing the more than 400 juveniles involved in the Luzerne County scandal.
And if your law firm isn’t supportive of pro bono work, Santoro said, “there are plenty of organizations waiting for volunteer lawyers, or hook up with poor bono coordinators for other firms.”
The opportunities to help don’t have to end with the end of Pro Bono Week, either.
Conn advised young lawyers looking for inspiration to get involved in pro bono to look back on their law school admissions essays. “Think about why you became a lawyer in the first place, what you wanted to do.”
Purdue Dean echoed that sentiment of going back to your roots. “My favorite memory of law school was my clinic work. I had never seen such gratitude – not that paying clients aren’t thankful, but there is something to be said for stepping in to help someone out of a bind when no one else will.”