Fellow In-House Counsel, You Too Can Do Pro Bono Work

Three attorney meeting around a table

“I can’t do any pro bono work; I’m not a family law practitioner.” “I wish I could do some pro bono work, but I can’t plan around client meetings or court hearings.” “I don’t know anything about pro bono work; I’m an in-house lawyer.”

ACC-W in-house lawyers volunteering at the 2017 United Way Day of Caring Microenterprise & Small Business Legal Clinic.

ACC-W in-house lawyers volunteering at the 2017 United Way Day of Caring Microenterprise & Small Business Legal Clinic.

Sound familiar? Like other in-house lawyers, those thoughts used to run through my mind. Not only did they cultivate a fear of performing pro bono volunteer work, but they really prevented me from taking any action to even ask about the pro bono work an in-house attorney might actually be able to do. It essentially stopped me from making a difference in someone’s life, and as a lifelong community service advocate that inaction was something that went against the grain of my being. So I decided to do something about it when I accepted the Pro Bono Committee Chair several years ago for the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Washington State Chapter (ACC-W).

The first step was understanding the pro-bono-services landscape and the opportunities available for an in-house attorney.

Celebrate Pro Bono 2018 banner

The October issue of NWLawyer is dedicated to a celebration of 50 years of civil legal aid in Washington. Along with Pro Bono Week in October, NWSidebar is highlighting stories of some of the amazing pro bono work Washington State Bar Association members provide.To learn more about the Amazon Justice League, check out our previous blog post, “Amazon Justice League Prime for Pro Bono”, “How Amazon’s Legal Team Provided Pro Bono Legal Expertise to the Innocence Project Northwest,” and “How Perkins Coie Makes Pro Bono Happen,” and “Making Time for Civics and Community is Worth the Effort.”

How You Can Perform Pro Bono

  1. Contact your local state bar pro bono services department or committee. The Washington State Bar maintains a webpage with recommended pro bono partners that offer a wide range of pro bono services to different kinds of clients, including business and organizational needs that reflect the more typical in-house environment: transactional, labor and employment, litigation, etc. If you prefer not to delve into criminal or family law issues, it is likely that you’ll be able to locate something business-oriented or administrative in nature, such that you’ll feel more comfortable taking it on. One side note: If you are passionate about immigration or domestic violence issues, you can work with pro bono advocates to perform the work that is most meaningful to you—don’t let your in-house day job stop you from learning new skills and giving back.
  2. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Nothing reads truer—if there is a will there is a way, in-house folks. Do not dissuade yourself mentally from thinking you can’t because you’re not a criminal defense attorney, or DV practitioner, or aren’t savvy in local landlord tenant issues. Want to know why? Because, fellow advocates, if you made it through three years of law school and got past the gauntlet of bar prep and testing, you are ready to volunteer.
  3. Most pro bono nonprofit partners offer CLE trainings to prepare their attorney volunteers. BOOM! There it is. You get trained, are provided resources, and can often access a legal specialist for additional or advanced client questions. I’ve seen the CLE resources offered for most everything, from immigration asylum work to wills and bankruptcy clinics. These legal pro bono organizations aren’t about to feed you to any malpractice wolves—they want your volunteer efforts to be as successful as possible for their clients and for their own organizational mission fulfillment. #TrainThemAndTheyWillVolunteer

By way of example, the ACC-W partners with the following nonprofit legal-services providers that focus in discrete client services:

  • Short Wills and Power of Attorney form clinics: 2–4 hours, 1 day (Eastside Legal Assistance Program)
  • Nonprofit Governance Policy Workshops for Whistleblower, Social Media, Harassment, Conflicts of Interest: 1–3 hours, 1-day event (Wayfind)
  • Clinic in a Box: Half-day clinics for in-house counsel to provide legal audits, advise, and more to nonprofits (Corporate Pro Bono)
  • Monthly small business client and nonprofit clinics for Employment law, Contracts, IP/Trademarks, Entity filing/formations: 1–3 hours monthly, or a 1-day event (Wayfind)
  • Innocence Project file reviews: do not require appearances or hearings (Innocence Project Northwest)

Each of these organizations provided the ACC-W members with CLE trainings prior to clinics and the volunteer opportunities were limited to one-day events, unless an attorney enrolls in the monthly clinic programs. So there’s little “readiness” you need to contend with if you want to engage and perform pro bono work.

Why You Should Do Pro Bono Work

I can’t answer this for the masses, only offer my personal perspective to consider. Performing legal pro bono work—whether you are an attorney, paralegal, or legal-support professional—stems from a desire to support communities, often those who are underrepresented and without means to afford basic legal services.

It is a personal choice to take active steps to engage and volunteer. I can say this: Whether you decide to take on a large pro bono matter like an asylum case or attend a local pro bono services clinic, you are helping change someone’s life. And that means something.

So if you find yourself wanting to serve and engage, don’t talk yourself out of it because you’re not “ready” or knowledgeable enough to do pro bono work because you are an in house attorney. Look for the opportunities and ask questions—I only listed a handful of partners and examples from the ACC-W vault. Contact any of the providers on the local state bar site or your local bar committee.

Ask questions. Look for training. Commit.

It’s never been easier to make a difference.