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Sybil Procedure: Confessions of a pro bono failure

Sybil Dunlop//January 23, 2017//

Sybil Procedure: Confessions of a pro bono failure

Sybil Dunlop//January 23, 2017//

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A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono public legal services per year, say the Minnesota’s Rules of Professional Conduct. Since graduating from law school in 2008, I have failed miserably at meeting this aspiration. Between 2008 and 2015, in fact, I never once met this threshold. But in 2016, I did it. I blew past my 50 hours and kept on going. And it felt great.

Having finally met the minimal recommendation for pro bono work, I have a few thoughts as to what was holding me back (and how I can do better in the future).

Fear was my enemy

When I first started practicing law, I suffered from a massive case of imposter syndrome. (Technically, imposter syndrome describes “individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’” — a common disease among newbie lawyers). My persistent memory of my first year of practice is anxiety. I worried as to whether I would fail to spot an issue or identify the correct solution or miss a deadline almost every evening (and certainly between 3 and 5 a.m. most mornings). But cases kept being placed in front of me at work, and I enjoyed engaging with them.

But volunteering to help someone who needed my assistance in a very real way seemed almost too hubristic. I surely didn’t yet know enough to help an individual whose housing, job, or physical safety could depend upon my legal advice. I figured that I should wait until I was a better attorney.

This was my first big mistake. Because while it is true that I was no expert in expungement or obtaining an order for protection, I was certainly better positioned than a client with no legal training. I didn’t need to compare myself to the best, I needed to compare myself to the realistic alternatives.

I also got depressed

I also suffered an early pro bono setback, and I let it get me down. I was working with a woman who wanted to obtain an order for protection. But at the last minute — right before we were going to get everything we asked for — she elected to withdraw her case. Her family pressured her to give it up and she agreed to do so, returning to a dangerous living situation. I was devastated and remained down in the dumps for weeks. My husband, concerned for me, gently suggested that perhaps I should take a break from providing pro bono assistance if it was going to throw me for such a loop. I took his advice and generally steered clear of pro bono work for a few years.

(As an aside, please don’t think I’m a total lout — throughout this time, I did participate in other activities for improving the law and the legal profession, just not pro bono.)

And then a few cases just landed in my lap.

I finally engaged in meaningful pro bono work when a few cases simply landed in my lap. First, a colleague accepted a case from the Pro Se Project and asked for help. Easy enough to say yes to a colleague — and I wouldn’t be alone, floundering — I had a peer with whom to learn the ropes.

Then a client asked me to provide pro bono assistance to a friend of their corporate family. I could hardly say no.

Finally, a big East Coast law firm invited me to work with them on a public rights issue. I was honored.

While two of these cases were firmly within my legal strike zone, one required me to learn a new area of the law (my old fears about messing something up, of course, resurfaced). But it turns out that learning a new area of the law was fine. It is actually what law school trained us to do. At hearing, the judge clearly realized that I was a newbie in the arena, but seemed unperturbed (if maybe slightly amused at my formalism). And we got the result we wanted.

While each of these cases presented different challenges, all three matters ended up among the most meaningful work I undertook this year. For the first time, a client of mine cried when we obtained favorable results. I received touching thank you notes (and even flowers)! I think I helped people change their lives for the better.

Like someone who experiences runner’s high for the first time, I’m now hooked. So how do I keep on doing this?

I learned that I do better when pro bono opportunities drop in my lap, and I just say yes. (Self-awareness moment: I am lazy at seeking out pro bono opportunities.) But there are ways to set up my life to direct more opportunities into my lap — lots of local organizations have listservs or mailing lists for which you can register. These groups send out emails alerting lawyers to opportunities. And once you have an established relationship with the folks that hand out pro bono cases, you might find that they call you first when they identify a good fit for your interests or expertise.

I also learned that I can conquer uncertainties about engaging with a new area of the law by partnering with colleagues. Having a friend with whom you can strategize; confirm your understanding of new rules, procedures, or law; and even share the work load is a great (and reassuring) thing.

I am disappointed that I let my own hang-ups prevent me from helping others for too long. I learned, this year, that I can make an immediate difference in the lives of individuals by applying my specific skill set to their legal problems. And this participation is even more important than money (although money is important too). It’s gotten to a point where I can’t afford my own hourly rate. That means that the greatest contribution that I can offer is my time. The folks that I helped in 2016 didn’t care that I wasn’t an expert in a certain area of the law. They cared about having access to my time. I will make more time in 2017.

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