Ask Not What You Can Do for Pro Bono; Ask What Pro Bono Can Do for You

By M. Rebecca Hendrix

Everyone should do pro bono work during law school.  While I could discuss at great length the merits of helping others, the focus of this article is how pro bono helps law students themselves.  Pro bono opportunities strengthen students in the classroom and eventually in a career.   Practical skills, networking experience, and a broader perspective are three things that students gain from pro bono work.

Pro bono work builds practical skills

Pro bono work gives students numerous forms of practical experience.  First, students can gain drafting skills.  For example, several programs allow students to draft healthcare documents such as living wills, health care powers of attorney, and general powers of attorney.  The Young Lawyers Division holds Wills for Heroes clinics in which attorneys and students draft wills for veterans.  Seeing how to put laws into effect in legal documents certainly translates to drafting courses, summer employment, and a career after law school.  Students who build drafting skills early on have an edge when they are placed in more competitive environments.

Another practical skill students gain from pro bono work is client interaction.  Building client relationships is one of the most important parts of a legal career.  Yet, face time with clients in law school is rare.  Interpersonal skills related to client interaction must be learned through practice.  Unfortunately, students may not have much opportunity to practice these skills in a summer job or even as an associate.  In many cases, students’ and young attorneys’ work experience entails extensive legal research.  If students and young lawyers attend a meeting, the partner is typically the person leading the meeting.

This is not the case with pro bono work.  When doing pro bono work, students are typically at the helm.  Students must interview clients, field questions, and explain complicated legal concepts to a layperson.  A supervising attorney is there if they need to jump in, but most are happy to observe and allow students to develop their own lawyering skills.

A successful legal career is like a brick wall.  Like a wall, a career is built from many blocks, such as individual cases and clients, and each block builds on another.  Pro bono work is a building block.  When students participate in their school’s pro bono program, they poise themselves for future opportunities.  Experience in a certain area of law could land a student in a certain practice group or firm.  Participation as a volunteer could transition to a leadership position.  That leadership position could lead to a board position in a professional or community-based organization.  These connections may bring you to a great future client or knowledge of a certain industry.  Attorneys tend to be actively involved in their community.  Law students are wise to do the same.  Students should start building their careers early, and pro bono work is a strategic way to do that.

Pro bono work provides valuable networking experience

It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.  As cliché as this saying is, networking can be vital in a job search or a legal career.  Pro bono work provides students with valuable networking experience.  Generally, law students advise clients while accompanied by supervising attorneys.  This connection is beneficial for numerous reasons.  Students gain a contact they otherwise would not have had.

Networking is not simply meeting a new person.  More importantly, students can glean valuable information from that contact. Supervising attorneys are useful sources for learning about different practice areas.

Pro bono as a form of networking has an added perk.  In a typical networking setting, students and attorneys socialize.  There may be food, drinks, or some type of programming.  Attendees likely share their elevator speeches, exchange business cards, and follow up with a request on LinkedIn.  While these exchanges are useful, it can be difficult for both students and attorneys to stand out.

Unlike this typical networking setting, though, pro bono work allows practicing attorneys to see law students in action.  The focus of a pro bono setting is not small talk, but rather a client’s facts and the relevant substantive law.  In a typical networking setting, a student may tell a contact that she is interested in certain pro bono work.  Pro bono work allows students to showcase their skills.  The opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, acumen, and work ethic should not be underestimated; I have a friend who was hired at a job after law school as a direct result of pro bono work.  She volunteered for a certain cause during all three years of law school.  Her boss hired her because of the dedication and consistent good work he noticed while she was performing pro bono work.

Because supervising attorneys oversee pro bono work, they are an excellent source of feedback.  When students finish a pro bono appointment, they should always ask the attorney for feedback.  Pro bono work is usually less pressure than an employment setting.  Students want to gain experience, help people, or support an important cause, and the attorneys want to facilitate that.  As such, they are happy to provide constructive criticism and useful practice pointers.  If students take advantage of this opportunity to receive feedback, it will pay off in the office.

Pro bono is rewarding

The focus of this article is not about the rewarding aspect of pro bono work, but rather how pro bono work helps students be better students and eventually lawyers.  However, these two concepts are interrelated.  Pro bono work offers students a better, broader perspective, whereas the classroom or office may not.

Providing legal services to those who cannot afford it is personally rewarding; thus, students benefit from pro bono work.  Most law students want to make the world a better place.  Many apply to law school because of that motivation.  Students need not wait until they graduate, pass the bar, and earn a law license before they can help others.  Pro bono work allows students to use the law to effectuate change—even in the first semester of law school.  Doing so feeds students’ desire to make an impact.

In addition to enriching students’ lives, pro bono work can ease the stress of law school.  Law students face so many demands.  They face daily pressure to read cases; prepare to be quizzed on those cases; update outlines; and research and write memoranda, briefs, or papers.  Law journals, moot court, trial teams, and clubs pile on more obligations. The work never seems to stop, and when one task is finished, another one looms behind.  It’s overwhelming.

It is a mistake, however, to ignore pro bono opportunities because of time constraints or stress.  All law students are busy, and all law students feel stress.  Nonetheless, the students who devote some time to pro bono work are doing it right.  Unlike homework or many extracurricular activities, pro bono does not have to be a hefty time commitment.  While every project is different, most opportunities allow students to devote as much or as little time to the project as they wish.  Further, the minimum time commitment is usually small.

But giving time—even a small amount of time—can ease the stress of law school.  Imagine one of your stressful days in law school.  Then imagine giving an hour to pro bono work.  In that hour, it is essential to be present during pro bono work.  You give the task at hand your full attention.  This focused attention removes you from the law school bubble.  Your to-do list will still be there after the appointment, but for that hour, it is not at the forefront of your mind.  Rather than spending another hour in the library with all the other frazzled, weary law students, you are with a client who needs you and an attorney who has been through school and can offer some support.  It feels good to help the client, and the comfortable, happy, supervising attorney shows you that there is light at the end of the tunnel.  After the hour, you feel calmer, yet energized.  You return to the library feeling refreshed, and you waste no time with unproductive stress.  You tackle your to-do list with ease.  You may even get ahead on an assignment.  While it may sound counterintuitive, many law school graduates, myself included, will attest that pro bono work helped them keep their sanity.

Like law school, the legal profession is often stressful.  While the outlining goes away, the daunting tasks of law school are replaced with other daunting tasks—billable hours, meeting deadlines set by the court, and balancing work for different partners—are just a few.  Using pro bono work as a way to destress and focus on something that makes you feel good works when you’re practicing too, but it will be easier to get into that habit if you start while in law school.  Plus, students who participate in pro bono while in law school are much more likely to continue pro bono work once they begin to practice and that’s a good thing.

So what are you waiting for?

Pro bono work gives students practical experience.  It bolsters drafting skills, interpersonal skills, and can lay the foundation for future opportunities within a firm or other organization.  Pro bono also provides valuable networking experience.  It connects students to practicing attorneys, who can be a great source for information about the practice of law.  Students have the opportunity to show attorneys their skills and ask for beneficial feedback.  For these reasons, pro bono makes students better students and eventually better attorneys.  Pro bono is more than the aspirational goal of providing legal services to underserved populations.  Rather, it is integral to the business of law.  Pro bono work helps other people, but it helps us too.

M. Rebecca Hendrix is a 2015 graduate of the Wake Forest University School of Law.  She practices with Martin & VanHoy, LLP, in Mocksville, North Carolina.

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