Pro bono and the young lawyer

Lawyers encouraged to get involved with pro bono work as early as possible

By Lauren Kirkwood
BridgeTower Media Newswires
BALTIMORE, MD — For attorneys in the early stages of their career who may feel overwhelmed with the day-to-day tasks of building their own practice or racking up billable hours, taking on pro bono work can feel like a nearly impossible commitment.

But legal professionals agreed the best way to foster a culture where lawyers are dedicated to spending a portion of their time aiding low-income and underserved clients — in a state where there is no requirement for pro bono service — is to encourage lawyers to get involved with pro bono work as early as possible.

“I think once that fire, that passion, is there, it stays with them,” said Jill Green, assistant dean for law career development at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “There's no better time to expose them to the vulnerable and the folks that need legal representation that wouldn’t otherwise have it — this is the opportunity we have as legal educators.”

Even before they graduate law school and pass the bar exam, soon-to-be attorneys can participate in meaningful pro bono work without practicing law themselves, from helping expunge criminal records to assisting with client intake, Green said.

“We really try to expose them in a number of different ways and create pathways for them. That’s really the challenge for them, it’s, ‘How do I figure out what to do?’” Green said. “They have so much on their plates already, the easier we make it for them, the more inclined they are to do it.”

‘So needed’

William Buschur, who graduated law school and passed the bar last year, has been volunteering with MVLS for about six months. Buschur sought out pro bono opportunities when he moved to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area to use his law degree to give back to the community and ended up stumbling into criminal expungement work with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.

“It's so needed,” Buschur said of the organization’s expungement clinics. “In Maryland, unlike other states, you have to file specifically to get a record expunged. A lot of times, people just don’t file because they don’t know they have to file. The sooner we can get this stuff off their records, the better.”

Buschur said the clinics are an appealing form of pro bono work for many young attorneys who might be hesitant to take on cases requiring court appearances.

“It’s typically just a matter of filing the appropriate papers and waiting on them to get back to you,” he said.

Despite the ease of some pro bono work, the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, the pro bono arm of the Maryland State Bar Association, consistently sees that more experienced lawyers make up a majority of those who volunteer for pro bono efforts.

“We really need to change that paradigm. We’re aging out, and we need the young lawyers to pick up the mantle,” said Sharon Goldsmith, PBRC’s executive director. “It’s more important now more than ever to listen to young lawyers and see what resonates with them.”

PBRC has had success collaborating with the local law schools and the Young Lawyers Section of the MSBA to encourage early-career attorneys to take on pro bono work, she said.

“We want to make sure that pro bono is institutionalized in the practice of law,” Goldsmith said. “We’ve tried many different things to try to appeal to young lawyers and enhance their experience in doing pro bono and make sure it’s accessible and make sure they have the support they need.”

Goldsmith and Bonnie Sullivan, executive director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, said they emphasize the significant impact that even a small pro bono commitment can have on low-income clients, as well as the perks of pro bono that are particularly beneficial to young lawyers, such as training, mentorship and litigation experience.

“One of the reasons to do pro bono is to build a practice and learn new skills,” Sullivan said. “It’s a very easy and constructive way to broaden their network. A lot of these folks are down on their luck now, but will be about to afford to pay legal fees in the future, and they'll go back to you. And if they don’t come back, they’ll refer relatives or a neighbor.”

Clinic work

Legal services organizations also provide training for new lawyers who may be handling matters that are out of their comfort zone, Sullivan said.

“For someone who is practicing real estate law, if you ask them to do a consumer case, there’s going to be hesitancy there because of fear — fear of not doing a good job, fear of being a transactional attorney and having to handle a court hearing,” she said.

For attorneys who might feel trepidation at the prospect of taking on full representation of a client, volunteering at a clinic is often an agreeable alternative, since it’s a finite time commitment, Sullivan added. Another advantage of volunteering at a pro bono clinic through a legal services organization, whether the focus of the clinic is on criminal expungement, bankruptcy, immigration or another area of law, is that young attorneys are not on their own when advising attendees. Staff attorneys and more experienced volunteers are available to answer questions, as well, she said.

“Most of our volunteers are small and solo practitioners, and their reasons vary, but stated simply, they believe in the rule of professional responsibility that tells them they should do pro bono as part of their practice,” Sullivan said. “The pro bono bug bites you.”