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A Call to Service

By Kari Santos | Oct. 2, 2009

Expert Advice

Oct. 2, 2009

A Call to Service

October is a great month to step up and show your commitment to provide quality legal services to people who can't afford them. Both the State Bar of California and the American Bar Association have designated October 25?31, 2009, as the first National Pro Bono Week.

The call to service couldn't come at a better time: As the economic downturn has pushed many lawyers out of their offices and onto the street, it has also placed an unprecedented strain on nonprofit legal-service providers, who need help now more than ever. (See "Up Against It")

By doing pro bono work, you can deliver much-needed services as well as keep your legal skills sharp, learn new ones, and network with other lawyers. To pursue pro bono opportunities effectively, you'll need to keep in mind some general principles, such as the need to target and tailor your inquiry, and the law of supply and demand. Consider these suggestions.

Focus Your Inquiry. Currently, many legal-service organizations are fielding a large number of requests from unemployed attorneys. Conduct due diligence before you approach these providers. Treat your pro bono search as you would a job search.

Stand out from the crowd by crafting a well-researched, provider-specific request for work, says David Ackerly, directing attorney of the Homeless Veterans Project at Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles. Don't send the same cover letter to different organizations stating that you want to "help the homeless." Providers need specific information that will assist them in matching you to a case. Instead, ask yourself: What skills do I want to build? Which ones do I have to offer? Whom do I want to help, and how?

Know Where to Look. A great place to start your research is the website, which connects volunteer attorneys to pro bono opportunities. Its Pro Bono Programs Guide offers a searchable database of providers. You can select a substantive area and a client population and generate a list of providers that match your criteria. (For additional resources, see the accompanying sidebar, titled Resources for Finding Pro Bono Work.)

Consider extending your search outside urban areas. "There's a total mismatch between the incredible need of rural Californians living in poverty and the concentration of legal-service providers in urban areas," explains Julia Wilson, executive director of the Public Interest Clearinghouse and Legal Aid Association of California. Communicating through email and faxes, big-city attorneys can help clients in remote locations.

In addition, service providers' annual reports and newsletters are good sources for information about volunteers successfully engaged in especially meaningful work. Find out if the provider's malpractice insurance covers volunteers. And if a provider's website doesn't include that information, Wilson advises asking directly.

Decide Whom You Want to Help and How. As you pore over data on prospective agencies to approach, take the time to identify the client population you'd most like to help. Your chosen clientele may be closely tied to a substantive legal area, such as victims of domestic violence at a courthouse restraining-order clinic, or veterans who have been denied benefits. Determining the types of cases you'd like to handle will help the legal-service agency find the right spot for you. It may require taking a few steps outside your comfort zone. For instance, transactional lawyers may not find pro bono projects that exactly match their work experience, but they can sign up for cases that require similar skill sets. The Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP) of the Bar Association of San Francisco, for example, has a limited-scope eviction project in which volunteers represent clients in mandatory settlement conferences. During the conferences, the parties attempt to negotiate a resolution, which usually leads to settlement. "We actually have quite a few transactional attorneys volunteering," explains VLSP Executive Director Tiela Chambers, "because negotiation is what they know."

Other projects?such as helping seniors with advanced health care directives and simple wills?might draw on the skills of client interviewing and contract drafting. And Liz Bluestein, general counsel of Public Counsel in Los Angeles, says there is a great need for attorneys who can counsel people with mortgage problems who may have been victimized by refinancing fraud.

If you feel "skill challenged," don't fret. Most legal-service providers offer training and staff support so that volunteer attorneys can take on projects outside their practice area. Find out what type of mentoring and training is offered before you commit to a project.

Request an Assignment. Once you've selected a provider, take time to craft an inquiry that is more thoughtful and informed than, "I'm looking for something to do?what can you offer?"

That said, nonprofits appreciate flexibility. If you request a certain type of project but nothing in that area is available, consider alternatives, especially if your contact asks whether you'd be willing to take something else. If you're uncertain whether you know enough about that area of law, ask about training and support. Your willingness to try something different and respond to the organization's needs will be remembered when new projects arise. "When people have been volunteering for awhile, they become known to us," adds Bluestein. "If they do good work in one area and then express an interest in something else, we are much more likely to use them since we already know their work product."

Keep Your Chin Up. Don't be discouraged if you fail to land a pro bono case right away. It may take time to get your foot in the door. Keep checking in and politely remind your contact of your interest.

Pro bono cases can offer attorneys the opportunity to handle more responsibility than they might be given at a law firm. For example, a junior litigator can develop motion-writing and deposition skills?and even (believe it or not) try a case! Think about the bullet points you can add to your resumé. If you're between jobs, working pro bono is a great way to stay engaged in the legal world.

But there's another important reason to perform pro bono work: It's the right thing to do. After all, how can you top the satisfaction of fighting for justice on behalf of an impoverished person who might otherwise go unrepresented?

Jennifer Winslow is a former managing director in the Los Angeles office of legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. Courtney Goldstein is a Los Angeles?based partner in the firm.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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