The Rules of Professional Conduct don’t require pro bono service, but they strongly recommend it.
Fifty hours per year, to be exact.
But good luck finding attorneys with 50 hours to spare, especially solos or lawyers in small firms.
“When they give up an hour of time, they really are giving up an hour of time,” said Pat Risser, attorney coordinator for Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Volunteer Lawyers Project. “And not just the hour, but the money that goes along with that.”
Solos and small-firm lawyers make up the bulk of Risser’s volunteer crew, however. And, she said, once they get involved, they stay involved.
The trick is convincing them to start.
“That’s a primary reason why we have a formal volunteer lawyers project and why somebody like me works at it full-time,” Risser said. “… We never have enough lawyers.”
Weighing the costs
Attorneys might not know what they’re getting into with pro bono work.
“There is always a concern that if you get far enough into a case and you’ve got personal demands for your time that you didn’t foresee or the financial pressures are overwhelming, a judge has the power to say, ‘It’s too late.
You can’t get out,’” said Jim Walrath, a Milwaukee attorney with the Law Offices of James A. Walrath. “…If someone is doing the best they can to improve legal assistance for people who wouldn’t otherwise get it, you’d think the courts would be pretty forgiving. And, I think, generally, they are.
“But sometimes things get messy.”
As former director of the Legal Aid Society in Milwaukee, Walrath said he has seen both sides of the pro bono issue. He understands the relentless demand for help, while appreciating the awkward position of solo and small-firm lawyers, particularly from a financial standpoint.
“The reality is there’s a lot of people who are doing good, quality legal work and not meeting their overhead,” said Walrath, who still volunteers with the Legal Aid Society.
And taking on a case means taking on the expenses of that case, whether you’re getting paid or not.
“Before you get in, you better evaluate discovery costs, expert witness costs, potential court reporter costs, copy costs,” Walrath said. “In many of these instances, you’re representing people who, the whole reason they’re getting your assistance is, they can’t afford legal costs. … And that might be a deterrent, and with good reason.”
There are ways around those issues, however.
Walrath has learned to ask opposing counsel if they plan to call a specific witness as a way of piggy-backing costs. Court reporters have been known to offer reduced fees or take on transcript work pro bono. The same goes for expert witnesses and private investigators.
“It’s not a broad network, but my own experience has been very positive,” Walrath said. “You explain the circumstances and many times people are very understanding.”
Growing through experience
Other attorneys are interested in pro bono work, but aren’t sure their legal specialties align with available cases.
“If you’re a corporate lawyer or, god forbid, a corporate executive, it’s hard to leverage your skill set into the pro bono marketplace,” said Pete Bruce, a former attorney and executive with Northwestern Mutual. “And the last thing you want to do is mess up for your client.”
Bruce said he always was interested in community service. During his years at Northwestern, he served on several nonprofit boards. But despite practicing law since 1970, he had never been in the courtroom. And he’d never represented children, which he began exploring after one of his grandchildren was adopted from foster care.
Before he retired in 2007, Bruce got the CLE credits needed to work as a guardian ad litem. But, still lacking courtroom experience, he hesitated to volunteer. Instead, he asked if he could job shadow with the Legal Aid Society in Milwaukee.
He attended jury trials and depositions until, finally, he felt comfortable taking a case. More than six years later, Bruce has become a go-to guy on Safe Haven babies, handling about 70 cases of children who are put in foster care, then put up for adoption after being left at a hospital or police station.
“Peter is the ideal pro bono lawyer,” said Tom Cannon, executive director of the Legal Aid Society in Milwaukee. “He’s the kind who made a commitment to do work on a regular basis. We can count on him to be out there every single week. We can count on him to take these cases.
“He comes to staff meetings. He’s invested a lot of his time. And, now, we’re reaping the rewards of his vary valuable pro bono work.”
There are also plenty of rewards for the person doing the volunteering, said Milwaukee solo practioner Gwen Connolly, who volunteers with Legal Action.
“Maybe I’m going to have a summary judgment and depositions and a trial. That’s professional experience. That has value to me,” Connolly said. “Yes, I’m paying for that experience and that knowledge, but it’s not really a loss leader; I gained something from that. I gained something from judges who see me.
“Do they know whether I’m pro bono or not? No, they don’t know. And that’s not important. But they see me represent people who need representation. That has value, so it’s not a completely selfless venture.”
And not every case requires a lengthy commitment or even experience, she said.
“For somebody who says, ‘I’m a real estate lawyer, and there really isn’t much I could do,’ I would say, ‘You could do a domestic violence restraining order, a very discrete legal activity. You’re going to have a minimum investment of time,” Connolly said. “It will be for a very short duration, in all likelihood. And Legal Action can give you training. Your legal skills and knowledge are going to fill in the blanks.’
“Look at it from this standpoint,” she added. “Most injunctions are not going to require more than four to five hours of your time. … You’d give up one round of 18 holes of golf. And you offer value to the person you’ve just helped. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say your effort is priceless, but it has a very high value.”
Finding the time
Though the amount of time will vary, Connolly said, every attorney should be able to find room for some kind of pro bono commitment. You just have to plan for it, she said, like you would any other case.
“It’s just part of what I do,” Connolly said. She also sits on the board of Collaborative Foundation of Wisconsin Inc., a new organization designed to set up low-income divorce clients in the collaborative model.
Connolly always has at least one pro bono case pending, sometimes two, she said, and spends an average of five to 10 hours a month on volunteer work.
“I don’t want to paint myself as some sort of altruist,” she said. “Certainly I don’t want to have my entire caseload be pro bono cases. I see it as just a complement to the work that I do.”
Her work as a solo actually makes that easier, she said.
“I have the luxury of working for myself, so if my workload is heavy in work that I’m not going to get paid for, that’s my choice,” Connolly said. “And my employer is very understanding about that. She also doesn’t pay me that month.”
Dolan Media Newswires also contributed to this report.