Pro Bono Management – Not Just a Job Any More

Today’s guest blogger, Tiela Chalmers, is a consultant and the former Executive Director of Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP) in San Francisco. This post originally appeared on her blog, Justice by Design, and is shared here with her permission.

A couple of years ago, a couple of enthusiastic young associates from a law firm came to me.  “We have a great idea!” they said. “We want to help address the terrible fact that 80% of the litigants in family court are representing themselves. We’ll go to our friends in various firms, and start a new project.  We’ll get lots of attorneys to take cases!”  They were so excited – they wanted to help families in crisis, and kids at risk.  I wanted so badly to hug them both and send them out to fulfill this passion of theirs.

I did hug them – but then I had to sit them down to have a deflating conversation. Did they know that most law firms refuse to allow associates to take pro bono family law matters? Had they studied family law, which is notoriously complex, and did they have a plan for training and mentoring?  Who were they thinking would do the extensive intake and triage work it would take to identify cases appropriate for volunteers, not to mention spend the time reaching out to their friends to place each case? Had they thought through what types of cases, at what stage in the proceedings, they wanted to take, and what scope of representation they were going to provide?  Could they articulate the “core competencies” volunteer attorneys could develop with these cases, in order to be able to make the business case for the project?

The good news is that, while these questions may have made these associates somewhat crestfallen, they are a sign of the strength of our community.  Pro Bono has become professionalized.  A corps of intelligent and thoughtful people has developed systems, research, experience and even official Pro Bono Standards (released by theABAin 1996 and now being updated).  We know a lot about what works and what doesn’t, and have significant expertise in how to run an effective and efficient pro bono program.

This is a little disconcerting for those folks who think of it as something that anyone can do.  People who have an idea over pizza with friends on Tuesday, believe they can implement that idea Wednesday morning – and still have time to bill an hour or two before lunch. And it’s a delicate balance for pro bono professionals:  we absolutely want the commitment and enthusiasm those pizza-planners have; we just need to work with them to contain, shape and direct it, based on all that we know, and are learning.

And so, yes – pro bono professionals are motivational speakers, and sales people, and advocates, and systems analysts – and we are also diplomats, and educators, and counselors.  We empower people to do what (most of them) feel they should, and do it well.  We have the best job in the world – we just need to gently let them know that it’s a job, and a profession.

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