Why do pro bono legal work? For me, it was more than just a way to do a public service, but also allowed me to more fully develop myself as a lawyer and to find a source of enjoyment -- from the work, from the feeling that I was doing something good and from the colleagues I've worked with.
Law is not my first career; I attended law school at night while I worked full-time at a corporate job. I went straight from law school and the corporation to a transactional practice. As a result, I never had exposure to litigation or the courts. I never aspired to Vincent Gambini, much less Atticus Finch or Perry Mason. My entire focus was staying out of court. Paraphrasing my first-year contracts professor, I told clients: "My job is not to help you win in court; it's to keep you out of court in the first place."
But how fulfilling is that to a lawyer? Not so much. You never see a movie starring an attorney hunched over a document-heaped desk marking up a loan agreement (and I'm sure you never will). For me, pro bono representation provides the stimulation of being a "real" lawyer and, at the same time, doing something worthwhile.
I started with guardian ad litem representation through the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, teaming with Andrea Jones, a friend and an experienced litigator who had been doing guardian cases for a number of years. Working as a team, I learned the ropes and we could be pretty sure that at least one of us would be available for hearings, interviews, home visits, etc. After a few cooperative cases, I started to handle guardian matters solo and continued to find them personally rewarding, as well as providing a service to the children and the court. After a few years of guardian cases, I took the Atlanta Legal Aid Society's training for low-income divorces and started handling some of those, as well.
One guardian matter involving a third-party custodian brought me into contact with Lindsay Verity of Atlanta Legal Aid Society and led to a four-month stint at Legal Aid of Cobb County. After the case was completed, Lindsay got me together with Steve Gottlieb, Atlanta Legal Aid Society's executive director. Steve persuaded me that becoming a "senior fellow" (i.e., old lawyer) at the Cobb County office would be a good thing to do, especially as they were soon to experience two maternity leaves. At Cobb Legal Aid, I handled divorces, custody cases and domestic violence TPOs, as well as a bit of everything else. Plus, like all Legal Aid attorneys, I spent time screening potential clients. As a result, I saw the extent of the demand for legal assistance by those without the funds to afford it, the inadequacy of the available resources, and both the hopefulness and hopelessness of many potential clients.
The need for legal assistance is great. As costs of legal representation rise, the availability has disappeared for many people. How many of us can afford to hire ourselves?
pro bono work is as good for the attorney as it is for the client, and not just from the feeling of satisfaction you get by knowing you're making a contribution (although that's enough). For litigators, pro bono work is a great way to perform public service at something they already know. For a transactional attorney, pro bono work provides a window onto the world of courtroom law, other than as a witness or juror. Plus, those who want transactional pro bono work can choose among wills, powers of attorney and trusts, among others. And case screenings and legal hotlines always need lawyers to staff them. There's really something for everybody.
Not least, you get a chance to work with some great attorneys who aren't in it for the money and who want to make a difference. At AVLF, Dan Bloom and then Dawn Smith, who ran the guardian program, always were available to help. The team at Cobb County Legal Aid provided me with support, training and encouragement, and persuaded me to stand up in court for our clients. It's still a bit scary for an old transactional attorney to stand up in court, where he looks more experienced than he is, but the judges generally show patience with pro bono counsel, and it's really not so bad learning some humility after a career behind a desk.
Frank Slover is a partner at Seyfarth Shaw's Atlanta office.