In this community profile post we conclude our discussion with Robert Elardo about how the pro bono community developed in Erie County and his role in developing pro bono relationships nationally.
Developing the Local and National Pro Bono Community
You served as president and one of the founding members of the National Association of Pro Bono Coordinators, now the National Association of Pro Bono Professionals? Why do you feel NAPBPro and the network it provides is important to the pro bono community?
NAPBPro is important because of the support and camaraderie it offers. In each community it can be lonely for the pro bono coordinator or manager because there are not many people doing the same thing. Pro bono management can also be a hard job. There are a lot of similarities to legal service lawyers but there are many differences. Pro bono management requires collaboration with lawyers and the bar and it can be difficult. Having a peer group to exchange ideas with and support is really important. It helps not having to reinvent the wheel and to receive support from people from other programs.
Many pro bono coordinators and directors struggle with how to recruit attorneys as well as how to minimize fear of the unknown among volunteers. What have you found to be most effective in combating these issues?
Training. The two most effective ways we recruit is through programs we run where lawyers are trained in exchange for getting a case. The other is recruiting new admittees who also require training but are often lawyers who are eager and looking for work. This can at times create more work and require more of a time commitment in order for us to get them to where they can successfully handle a case but it is certainly effective. We also have lawyers on staff that handle cases in areas similar to what volunteers will be asked to do so. This can be reassuring because volunteers know that there are attorneys who do this particular type of work every day available to support them.
During the recent hit the economy has had on the legal profession, have you noticed pro bono participation in Buffalo increase or decline?
Pro bono in Buffalo has been fairly consistent. In addition to what the attorneys on staff here at the Volunteer Lawyers Project handle, we have about 400 volunteer lawyers on about 1000 cases each year and that has been fairly consistent over the last few years. The cases have changed, however, and we have had lawyers volunteering in different areas. The number of unemployment cases we are handling has gone through the roof so we have focused on increasing the training in that area. Previously we had not provided unemployment training at all so this is a new venture for us.
What was the greatest lesson you learned about managing a pro bono organization or pro bono work generally?
That you can not change the waters instantly. Pro bono is a long-term project so it is easy to get frustrated when you are trying to accomplish something and it is hard or it is not working. It is important to keep in mind the good that is being done and to look down the road at the change that is coming. The waiting is hard in this field so having patience is important.
~ Adrienne Packard