Don’t Let Pro Bono Work Put You Out of Business

There is a lot of discussion about lawyers and their obligation to perform pro bono legal services. Pro bono publico (translation: “for the public good”) is a very admirable way to give back to society in the form of free or very inexpensive legal aid to those who otherwise could not afford legal services.  Sometimes, depending upon the nature of the case, there can still be a financial award if you win for your client.

This column, however, is not about the morality of whether or not each and every lawyer has an obligation to give back to society in the form of free or inexpensive legal services. It is about business decisions. If the newly minted solo is inclined to do pro bono work, how does it fit into his or her business plan?

Pro bono work usually translates into, “I’m not getting paid … by choice.” It should be done as a calculated business decision. You only have so many hours in the day to represent your clients. When you make a calculated decision to donate a certain number of hours of your time, whether in an effort to attract more business and/or to satisfy some inner moral compunction, while not taking food off your table, that’s called “marketing” and/or “soul food.”

When you let a client take your time because you are incapable of charging them or steal your time because you are incapable of collecting your fee and there’s no hope of referred clients, all while struggling to pay your rent, that’s called “stupid,” or, “I’m not getting paid … but not by choice.”

You must learn the difference between pro bono work and bad business. One will help you prosper financially and emotionally. The other will put you under.

While you are starting out, pro bono work needs to be very thoughtful in terms of your business plan because if you are a bleeding heart you will help a few, go out of business, and not be able to help a lot more in the future.

There are pretty much two times in your career cycle when pro bono work is a win/win situation for you and the client. When you are first starting out, the likelihood of you billing 40 to 50 hours per week is small. You will be in a learning curve. During this learning curve you will have some time to take on a case others won’t because the client can’t pay. It can be a tremendous learning experience, a basis for referrals in the future and provide a lot of exposure to colleagues and the courts.

And most importantly, it’s not taking away from you earning money to support your business. It beats sitting around waiting for the telephone to ring.

The second time in your career cycle when pro bono work is a win/win situation is when you are well-seasoned, you’re financially comfortable and you genuinely feel the need to work on a case for a client without counting the nickels. The desire to help is great, the injustice of a situation strikes a chord or the substantive legal issues compel you. And because of your experience, what might have taken you thirty hours years ago now takes ten hours.

One very successful attorney who does a lot of pro bono work now that she can afford to once told me “there are a lot of barking dogs out there. You can’t feed them all.” This was very wise advice for a new attorney. There is no shortage of people who will look to take your time for free.

However, you are not in the business of extending credit or giving away your services. Unless someone is paying your student loan, mortgage and car payment, you are under no moral obligation to give away valuable time you can be using to network, educate and represent paying clients. There are only so many hours in a day.  And, yes, even as a new attorney your time is valuable.

You must grow your business first, keep yourself afloat and meet your obligations to yourself and your family.  You will know if and when the time is right to take on pro bono work.  At that time you will calculate how many hours per year you can donate to those in need.  Remember, your goal is to create a thriving business that will provide for your future.  Only then will you be able to help others who might not otherwise have access to quality legal services.

What has been your experience doing pro bono work?

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7 comments on “Don’t Let Pro Bono Work Put You Out of Business

  • Couldn’t a solo meet his need/desire for pro bono work by working through advice and referral clinics rather than taking on clients and cases? That sort of compromise, I would think, keeps the pro bono hours at a mangeable level.

    • James,

      Absolutely! That is blending business sense with pro bono opportunities. You are looking at your goals. Now how you choose which clinics to participate in should be driven by your practice area interest (or personal interest) because you will start getting known in this area by those who run the clinics and they will most likely look to refer business your way. So, yes, this is a very manageable way to approach pro bono opportunities.

  • Great article Susan! This topic recently came up as I had to evaluate the pros and cons of learning a new practice area for free but devoting almost 150 hours of volunteer hours in exchange.

  • I recently began seeking pro bono opportunities with nonprofit organizations whose work I value. My intellectual property practice lends itself well to those endeavors, and in addition to feeling good, it may lead to referrals down the road. At the very least, a reputation for doing good in the community is never a bad thing for an attorney, right?

    • Annie, your thinking is very ‘business-like’. That’s the point of the post! It relates to your work. It feels right to you and you’ve carved out the time to do it. Keep us posted on the results.

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