Pro bono legal work doesn’t just benefit your conscience, taking the time to work on pro bono cases can help take your practice to the next level.
During the holiday season, our thoughts turn to those less fortunate than ourselves. This is the perfect time to think about helping others, and doing pro bono work is a great way to put your legal skills to work.
Think you can’t make time for pro bono because of your demanding job? Think again, because pro bono work offers many benefits to attorneys, including help with time management.
Anthony Butler is a great example of someone who has benefited in many ways from doing pro bono. A small firm practitioner in Baltimore City, his practice includes business consulting, as well as bankruptcy, contracts, employment law, family law, estate planning, and more. Anthony does all of his pro bono through Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), a nonprofit that matches low-income Marylanders with civil legal issues to pro bono attorneys.
We caught up with Anthony to hear what he had to say about the place of pro bono work in his small firm.
What are the benefits of pro bono to you and your practice?
Butler: I’m now in my eleventh year of volunteering. Ten years ago, I volunteered because it was a way to learn new practice areas, get access to mentors, and receive some substantive training. There was a real practice benefit for me, and it would be disingenuous if I said it was purely for the good of the people. For me personally, the best benefit was gaining actual experience.
Additionally, I’m not from the Baltimore area, so I was starting without a local database. Although I had a core group of friends who were critical in keeping me afloat for the first few years, doing pro bono is another way to market my services and get more experience.
I also think most small and solo firms end up doing pro bono work, but sometimes by accident. You get the random, “Hey I’ve got a quick question,” and that question turns into three hours, and you haven’t gotten paid for that time. Now, when a client without any resources asks me if I can help out, I say “You should really go to an agency that will help support that. I highly recommend you go to MVLS.” And I send clients that way. It’s my nice way of saying I do pro bono work, but only through MVLS. This helps me manage both my time and the amount of pro bono work I do.
What would you tell a new attorney who just passed the bar about pro bono, or in your case, someone who just moved here from out of state?
Butler: Pro Bono is something we value in Maryland. In addition to MVLS, there are several other agencies, so you can find a way to help people no matter what your passion. Align yourself with an agency that fits your values and the population you want to help. This lets you approach pro bono work in a structured programmatic way.
Also, aligning yourself with a pro bono agency is a way to get help, especially for an attorney who is new. There have been times when I’ve called MVLS with a question that had nothing to do with a pro bono case. I will ask MVLS to connect me with someone in an area of law that I know nothing about. Pro bono is a great resource for small solo firms.
What motivates you personally to provide legal help pro bono?
Butler: I personally get a sense of fulfillment when I get a win for someone who has been either taken advantage of, or someone who doesn’t have the resources to hire an attorney.
If you ask most attorneys in solo or small firms why they started their practice, the answer is probably something like “I wanted to help people.”
I tell people all the time that as lawyers, you see the worst of society, especially if you’re in criminal work. Even if you’re in family law, you see people at their ugliest, deepest, darkest, most depressed times.
And then to see that you’re providing a service to someone who desperately needs it, who is not using the system to gain or to get over on someone else, but someone who is using MVLS and other agencies like it to really navigate through the system, to get help and in some cases to find justice—I think that’s what really helps me find that balance. Sometimes I feel like I’m on the dark side, and then I get an MVLS case and I feel like I did something good.
Can you describe a rewarding pro bono case that you took on?
Butler: One of most memorable cases I’ve done was a tax controversy case. The client was an older woman on a fixed income, who really didn’t have any resources. She had entered into this payment agreement that was just absurd. We were able to get her out of that agreement, and based on the payments she had already made, satisfied that debt. The problem was that she was talking to two different divisions of the IRS who were not communicating. We were able to get them to speak to each other and they said, “Alright, we’ll close this one out.”
I looked at this client, and thought, “This could be my grandmother. It could be my sister, it could be my mom.” That’s what gets you to come out of the dark side, and to start giving. You see the light, and know that you are doing a service for people who need it and don’t know where to go.
As lawyers, we think that lawyers are everywhere. We look at the membership in the Maryland Bar and think wow, that’s 30,000 people, that’s a lot of lawyers. But, people don’t know lawyers. Most people do not know where to find a lawyer. They go to the phone book, back in the day, or go online, do a Google search. But most people do not have a personal connection to an attorney. So, pro bono is a good way to really broaden that net for people who don’t have access to the resources they need.
A Note From the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service:
Interested in doing Pro Bono work? Find a legal area that interests you, and check with your local bar association. There are many, many ways to do Pro Bono – from full representation to participating in a clinic for a set number of hours. It’s a great way to make a big difference in someone’s life while benefiting yourself.