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How to: Making pro bono work for small-firm, solo lawyers

How to: Making pro bono work for small-firm, solo lawyers

The Rules of Professional Responsibility don’t mandate pro bono work, but they strongly recommend it – 50 hours per year, to be exact.

Medium- to large-size firms make that easier for their attorneys by having pro bono coordinators line up the work. Small firms and solo practitioners have to fend for themselves.

Trying to find solos and small firms to participate in pro bono work can be a challenge.

“You can’t go to one location and say, ‘This is where we’ll find everyone that we want to work with,’” said Steve Marchese, pro bono development director at the Minnesota State Bar Association. “When it comes to finding solo lawyers, you have to recognize that you try to find them when you are grouped together in a bar section or at a particular event when you know that there’ll be a significant number of them present at one time.”

Then you have to reassure them that doing pro bono work won’t interfere with their practice or take them too far afield from their area(s) of expertise, unless they want to learn something new.

“Every hour they’re not billing is an hour they’re not getting paid,” Marchese acknowledged. “The other part is, ‘What do I do if I have a question?’”

Some pro bono organizations, such as Volunteer Lawyers Network, Tubman, the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, have staff or volunteer attorneys who can train pro bono volunteers and answer their questions.

“For small and solo lawyers, it’s important to remember there are lots of different ways to do pro bono service,” Marchese added.

They can schedule time to advise people at legal clinics, give other brief advice or provide limited-scope service. That includes evenings and weekends, according to Laurel Learmonth, a shareholder in the Primus Law Office in Minneapolis and a Volunteer Lawyers board member.

The network has 800 active volunteers on an annual basis, according to executive director Suzanne Pontinen.

“We have many longstanding, committed volunteers that are just fantastic. They’re just so committed to the public service and they go above and beyond to provide those services,” Pontinen said. “They’re maintaining their own private practice caseload and outside of those hours, giving back to the community in this way.”

Newbies needn’t feel intimidated, she added.

“They can really start small if they want to and see what fits for them, what works for them and then they can expand upon that,” Pontinen said.

Pro bono organizations tend to give the more complicated cases to experienced attorneys and the simpler ones to the new lawyers, said Learmonth, a Volunteer Lawyers volunteer for more than 30 years.

“There are a lot of cases that you can do that aren’t going to take a whole lot of time,” she said. “If you’re volunteering for VLN, you can go to the staff and say I just want an easy one and they know what an easy one is.”

Jenna Westby, a shareholder in the small South Minneapolis firm Legal Nudge, started volunteering with the Volunteer Lawyers Network and with Project Homeless Connect after receiving her license to practice law in 2007. A family law specialist, Westby does clinics, brief service and full representation cases on a pro bono basis.

“I don’t ever take more than one at a time,” Westby said of the longer-term cases. “The only difference is they don’t get a bill at the end of the month.”

If a pro bono case requires it, Westby and her partner will ask each other for help with research.

“Once you get connected to an organization, they will reach out to you, and it helps when your practice is slower,” Westby added. “If you just fit it in so it works with your practice, I think it’s very enjoyable.”

Solos and small firms shouldn’t assume that the large firms have it covered, according to Hopkins attorney consultant Roy S. Ginsburg, who serves on the state bar’s Legal Assistance to the Disadvantaged committee.

“There’s a tremendous need,” Ginsburg said. “You can almost never have enough lawyers.”

The benefits of pro bono work flow both ways. It can improve a lawyer’s skill set, expose the lawyer to different types of clients and expand the lawyer’s network, Ginsburg said.

“That’s going to only enhance your business development,” he said. “It also enhances your reputation with the bar and the bench.”

Ginsburg and Pontinen agreed that most attorneys entered the law because they believed it to be a noble profession. Doing pro bono work supports that belief while offering valuable experience, Pontinen said.

“Any area you’re interested in, it will also give you some experience, so if you’re looking for a job, you can say, ‘I did this.’ It can be invaluable training,” she added. “You’re getting training while you’re also giving someone something they desperately need.”

Doing pro bono work also gives attorneys a better understanding of what financially challenged people are going through, according to Pontinen.

“This is the way that attorneys who have this special expertise can give back to their community,” she said. “This is the way they can give back to people in need. Nobody else in our community can provide this service to those in need.”

Contact Nancy Crotti at ncrotti@gmail.com.

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