Volunteering: A Little of Your Time, Big Returns for Your Solo Practice

This post was written by guest blogger, Erin McClarty.

Erin McClarty serves as Legal Counsel for an oil and gas service company in Houston, Texas. She is also a sitting Vice-Chair for the ABA’s International NGO and Not-for-Profit Committee as well as volunteer counsel for local non-profit organizations. She discusses many of the legal issues she encounters while working with non-profits on her blog, Notations on Non-profits. You can connect with her on Twitter / Facebook

By now I’m sure you’ve heard dozens of different pro bono pitches. Riddled with ethos laden guilt-trips, and ubiquitous promises of personal improvement, they all seem to come to a unanimous conclusion. Attorneys should volunteer, if for no other reason than, to experience the deep-rooted satisfaction that comes from using unique skill-sets to better society.

Although I don’t disagree with the premise, I fully understand that Wal-mart™ does not, nor will they ever, accept moral obligations and fuzzy satisfaction as forms of payment. And in a world where the six minute increment is king, the attorney’s most important currency is that of time. Meaning those activities that take time must be carefully prioritized or dropped.

Unfortunately, many attorneys perceive volunteering as somewhat unnecessary; at the most a benevolent donation and the very least a past-time. To the contrary, I would suggest that failing to make the time to volunteer can actually hinder your practice. In fact, I would argue that volunteering is an integral if not indispensable part of a successful practice.

And why wouldn’t it be? The possibilities to leverage volunteer experiences professionally abound. Having often worked with non-profits, I can personally attest to seeing attorneys monetize their volunteer arrangements as well as change the trajectory of their firm for the better.

The ability to do this, however, hinges on being able to see the volunteer experience for what it is; an investment. An investment in the organization you are volunteering for, as well as your practice. How so? Well, by giving a little of your “currency” to someone else you in return:

  1. Get a free means of marketing and branding your firm. Who wouldn’t kill for that? Whether giving someone a business card or talking about your past experiences volunteering provides a forum for you to let people know you exist and what you do. You can also quickly begin to change, or create, a brand by taking matters from specific organizations or engaging specific industries. Take that GoogleAds™.
  2. Have market research delivered right to your door. Thought of endeavoring into a new practice area? Or possibly relocating to a new geographic location? Volunteering can give you a glimpse at the type of cases inherent to certain industries, case-loads found in different locales and the needs of different demographics. All without having to expend company time or resources on experimenting.
  3. Potentially procure a referral stream. Now, I’m not saying that every volunteer experience is a guaranteed referral source. What I am saying, however, is that you would be astonished by how few people personally know an attorney. When finally acquainted with one that experience tends to stick. And regardless of what your practice is they will refer all kinds of cases to you merely because they know who you are. Having the opportunity to develop this type of loyalty is priceless.
  4. Gain expertise for no cost. How many times have you wanted to take continuing education only to discover it costs as much as half a semester of law school? Training these days doesn’t come cheap. Fortunately, there are a myriad of pro bono arrangements that allow volunteers to endeavor into different practice areas while under the supervision of an experienced mentor. Why listen to the 2011 developments in Immigration Law when you can appear before an immigration tribunal? Not only do you get the hands on training, but you’ve simultaneously managed to expand your practice landscape too.
  5. Get first dibs on cases. So you’ve just helped an organization draft a Conflicts of Interest policy for sub-contractors they eventually want to hire. That means there are going to be contracts that need to be reviewed and screens run. Who better to do it than you; someone already familiar with the transaction? Volunteering puts you at the forefront of operations. Consequently, although the organization may not have been able to pay for the matter you’re currently working on a positive volunteer experience definitely gives you an advantage when a paying matter comes up.
  6. Triple your experience in little time. Volunteering presents an opportunity for practitioners to handle cases, or engage with individuals, they may not have otherwise dealt with for years. This reality is great for those who are just entering the practice and want experience sooner than later. You’ll find people are much more likely to take a chance on you when you’re working for a sandwich and validated parking.
  7. Become more well-rounded. I’ve refrained from solely referring to volunteer cases because there are dozens of ways attorneys can contribute, all of which are beneficial. Don’t want to handle a matter? Then you can volunteer to be on an organization’s board and hone your leadership, managerial and fundraising skills. Some organizations need people to interface and educate their constituencies. In which case you could brush up on trial skills by learning how to translate complex or mundane subject matters for the average Joe.

I don’t at all intend to make volunteering seem stoic or impersonal. What I do hope to get across is that jumping on opportunities to further one’s business does not have to be preclusive to getting that warm fuzzy feeling. The two can certainly co-exist. You will, of course, need to keep those little things called the Rules of Ethics in mind. But with a little bit of awareness, and conscious effort, you will quickly find volunteer experiences to be both personally and professionally satisfying.

Have you volunteered? How did it help your practice? Please share in the comments.


If you’re interested in being a guest contributor on Solo Practice University®, send an e-mail to susan (at) solopracticeuniversity.com with a brief description of your topic matter, background and why you believe your words of wisdom will help those going solo.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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One comment on “Volunteering: A Little of Your Time, Big Returns for Your Solo Practice

  • My very first case was a pro bono bankruptcy case through Philadelphia’s Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project (CBAP). It was such a great experience that I went on to take several pro bono bankruptcy cases a year while I was in that city.

    Handling bankruptcy cases was fairly easy for me as I have a tax background (both have as a foundation statutory law). But, I still needed the training. CBAP handled that with fantastic free training seminars. Also, I was assigned a mentor. My mentor not only answered substantive questions, but he walked me through my first case on the nuts and bolts of interviewing clients, to filing out forms, to where I suppose to sit at the 341 hearing.

    On top of everything else, I met and talked with Elizabeth Warren and Henry Sommers, both being heavily involved in the program at the time. How great is that to start a legal career?

    Regardless, the most rewarding part of volunteering was knowing that I helped people in dire need of help. Many of my clients had to file bankruptcy because of medical bills and, not too surprisingly, once their financial worries were over their health improved.

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