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Tips for Doing Pro Bono Work from Someone in the Trenches

thinkstockphotos-178363193The following is a guest blog post by Richard M. Wilner, a founding shareholder and chair of the  Employment-based Immigration Practice Group of Wilner & O’Reilly in Orange County. Together with his partner Kelly S. O’Reilly—a former immigration officer—he helps lead a team of 14 lawyers dedicated exclusively to the practice of immigration law.

The great Winston Churchill said “We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us.” Consequently, I believe there is no group more deserving of my time, at no charge, than the men and women who serve in the United States military. Whether representing military clients or otherwise, here are some things I’ve learned from years of doing pro bono legal work.

Take the case of Paul, a United States Marine who received the Purple Heart. On one of Paul’s missions in Iraq, he and his unit were attacked with an improvised explosive device (IED). Although Paul survived, many in his unit didn’t.  Once home and discharged from the military, Paul married the love of his life; she was a student visa overstay and technically illegally present in the United States. Given Paul’s lasting mental and physical injuries, he couldn’t hold a job.  Because of his wife’s immigration status, she too was unable to work. Times were tough and it was difficult to pay rent let alone hire an attorney to perfect his wife’s status. Paul and his wife needed a lawyer to represent them free of charge. We were lucky that they found us because, although Paul and his wife did not pay us for our time, the satisfaction in helping them was well beyond measure.

Doing pro bono work is rewarding beyond measure. If you’re interested in doing such work, here are a few suggestions from my experience:

Identify a screening organization. Identify an organization that screens potential clients in need of help in a particular legal area. These organizations assess both the legal needs and financial ability of the individuals so you’ll know that someone is truly in need of your help. The overwhelming majority of my pro bono military clients are identified by the Veterans Legal Institute, a military-specific pro bono law firm.

Stick with your field of expertise. Lawyers committed to pro bono work sometimes take compelling cases even if outside their area of subject matter expertise. I don’t do that. My firm’s pro bono services are limited to our field of expertise, immigration. This not only guarantees a level of service that we internally demand and our clients deserve, but from a practical perspective, it also keeps our legal malpractice insurance carrier happy. Saying no to pro bono work is tough at times because there are so many deserving potential clients; working with a screening organization and sticking to your field of expertise are two ways to triage so that you can help without overwhelming your office. Limiting pro bono work to your specific legal area may allow you to seamlessly weave your pro bono activities into your everyday practice and not be distracted by trying to educate yourself in an area with which you’re not already familiar.

It can bring paid work, but don’t make that the point. Don’t get confused; we are a for profit law firm. Although representing people for free can be very costly, doing pro bono work has never interfered with our for profit activities and we can incorporate our pro bono clients with our paid clients because they’re within the same subject matter. Our normal law firm operations are enhanced by our pro bono activities if only because my team feels good doing it. And, although pro bono clients occasionally refer paid clientele, this is NOT why I do it. I do it because, at a young age, my grandfather instilled in me the value of service to others. My firm does it because our lawyers and case managers share this philosophy and one of our firm’s core values is service.

I strongly suggest that you consider doing pro bono work from time to time if you don’t do so already. Selfishly, there’s no greater feeling to me as a lawyer than helping someone who is otherwise without the means and recourse to get help that they desperately need and deserve.

CEB is proud to offer discounts and support to pro bono groups as part of our commitment to community engagement.

Other CEBblog™ posts you may find interesting:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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