As we wrap up National Volunteer Month and transition into May, our focus in this blog shifts from the importance of volunteer service to the importance of mental health. We asked Angela Schultz, Asst. Dean for Public Service at Marquette Law School and current Chair of the AALS Section on Pro Bono and Public Service Opportunities, to write about the “why” behind pro bono. She chose – and we thought this was brilliant – to interview a couple of volunteers with the Marquette pro bono program. As you will see in the post, they discuss how pro bono is not only good for the clients – it’s also good for the lawyers.
Thank you, Angela, for writing a great post!
This morning I supervised a brief legal advice clinic on Zoom. Six lawyers and six law students gathered to provide legal advice to twelve clients during a two-hour period. One of the volunteer lawyers, Dan, is a recent law school graduate and is in private practice with a large firm. His focus is mergers and acquisitions in healthcare systems. He deals with layers of bureaucracy, complicated laws, managing client expectations, and ticking clocks as legal deadlines approach. Today, Dan worked alongside Shana, a 1L, to serve two pro bono clients. The first was seeking a return of their security deposit. The second was looking for help with a claim for unpaid wages. Dan and Shana got to work and spent about 50 minutes with each client. When we debriefed afterward, I asked them for their reflections. Here is some of what they shared.
Dan, mergers and acquisitions of large healthcare systems seems a world away from the pro bono practice you do at this clinic. Are there similarities?
Pro bono involvement, from law school through now, has been the place where I have developed most of my client interview skills. Both pro bono clients today needed to chart out for me the steps they had already taken—and that’s something I routinely do in my M&A cases. If my business client has filed a new LLC, I need to know because a clock is now ticking on a particular legal deadline. If a pro bono client has vacated their apartment on a particular date, I need to know because a clock is now ticking for their landlord to communicate with them about the security deposit. It’s the same set of skills.
Shana, the classroom is a demanding place in law school. The work requires a high level of attention and a lot of time. Why did you decide to make a place for pro bono service on top of the demands of the classroom?
I don’t have lawyers in my family. The pro bono clinics are the first place I had access to observing a lawyer do their job. That was my first reason for signing up. But then I started to understand the justice gap and how necessary the clinics are for people navigating legal matters without a lawyer. Now I’m hooked. And while the classroom is where I learn a lot of theory, the clinics are I learn a lot of practical skills. I have watched lawyers be very direct with clients. Last week I heard a lawyer tell the client she believed he was minimizing his abusive behaviors towards his child’s mother. I would have imagined that was a hard or scary thing to do. But the lawyer did it in a very matter-of-fact style that seemed non-judgmental but also non-forgiving. The client actually agreed. It was inspiring to see and made me feel less afraid of having such straightforward conversations.
Dan, your practice is obviously quite demanding and time-consuming. What makes you set aside time for pro bono?
My practice can be all-consuming. I spend many early mornings, late nights, and weekends dedicated to my clients’ business goals. But my pro bono practice allows me to maintain perspective. The dollar values involved in my private practice are a world away from the dollar values on the table in the pro bono clinic, but the implications to my clients’ daily lives are also worlds apart. The billion-dollar deal does not implicate where my client’s child will sleep that night. The pro bono eviction case does implicate my client’s housing and may determine where their child sleeps that night. I refuse to let my practice, admittedly in an ivory tower, blind me to the challenges facing everyday people. And one more thing: if lawyers don’t get involved to close the justice gap, who will? It’s our job. We’re actually the only ones who can do it.
Shana, as your first year of law school comes to a close, what words of wisdom would you share with a rising 1L?
The days will seem very long but the year will fly by. Meet as many new people as you can and don’t be afraid to ask questions. I watch every lawyer in every pro bono clinic ask questions. They find other lawyers to consult with and they seek out the clinic supervisors every time. It’s a relief to know being a lawyer doesn’t require you to “know it all.” It seems that being a lawyer means taking on a career involving lifelong learning. Lean into it. I guess we’ll always all be developing as professionals.
Lawyers are regularly asked to serve in their communities, and we hope lawyers do so with a servant’s heart. When asked to join local boards, help with civic needs, and take on pro bono cases, young lawyers can benefit beyond the personal satisfaction that comes with knowing they are doing these things for the right reasons. These efforts also can be helpful to their careers with intention and planning. In 2016, Matt Czimskey, one of my law school classmates, Jeanine Rispoli, my wife and the current President of the Texas Young Lawyers Association, and I presented at the ABA Young Lawyers Division Fall Conference. The topic for our presentation was “Growing Your Network: Ethics and Professional Conduct that Builds Relationships.” In the paper that was given to the audience, we highlight the importance of community service and three questions that every young lawyer should consider:
Community involvement should have a positive impact on your community and your career. Thus, there are three fundamental questions that you must ask yourself: (1) who am I and what do I want to do; (2) how can I best inform people who I am and what I do; and (3) what decisions must I make to make myself known and build a reputation for my practice?
There are always too many demands for our time. Our experience has been that by answering these questions and being intentional about serving the community, young lawyers can live up to the aspirational goals of the profession and benefit their careers at the same time. In Chapter 22 of Fundamentals of Lawyer Leadership, we give some further guidance to students about their service paths and some thoughts to consider as they explore options.
We’d like to hear from you about how you address this subject. When students ask you why they should get involved in the community, what do you tell them? Are they seeking aspirational reasons? The practical side of actually getting involved? Or do they want to know whether it is worth doing given their billable-hour minimums at the law firms? Tell us what you say in the comments below.