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Spotlight on Pro Bono: Tick Tock. New Year’s Resolution? Find Time.

By Teri Ross, Program Director, Illinois Legal Aid Online

Like many Illinois attorneys, I recently completed my ARDC registration. Like some of you, I had to answer “Mandatory Pro Bono Information” questions. In particular, this one stood out:

"Did you within the past twelve months, provide any pro bono legal services? Yes or No"

Well, honestly (as my mother used to say), who wants to answer ‘No’ to that? There must have been something I’d done that I could report on. Think, think, think. I reflect on my extracurricular activities in 2017 — scout mom, active church member, elementary school volunteer, letter writer, and other social justice advocacy. Can I report on any of that?

Now, it’s not like I don’t know what pro bono is. I work for a non-profit legal aid organization that offers great, online information about pro bono, not to mention a whole directory of Illinois pro bono opportunities. My problem is that I really haven’t done any pro bono work. I am a lawyer, so of course, I could try to justify some of my activities listed above to wedge (awkwardly) into the pro bono categories. But the truth is, I have not done anything outside of my paid employment that equates to “legal services to a person/persons of limited means.”

My work at Illinois Legal Aid Online does not count as pro bono because I get paid for it. Like many attorneys, my average work week is longer than that of other workers, but this is what it means to be a modern, professional employee. As a steadfast believer in equal justice, I have long struggled with this tension — I work above and beyond to increase access to justice, but this is also part of my job. How do I fit in pro bono?

One of our professional responsibilities as lawyers is to contribute to the public good. We are a mostly self-regulated profession and as such have a duty to ensure that our profession is meeting certain standards, including giving back. In researching this blog, I came across an excellent article, "Pro Bono in Principle and Practice", by Mike Fiello, former managing attorney at Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation and now the Honorable Michael Fiello. He summarizes some findings from Deborah Rhode’s book Pro Bono in Principle and in Practice: Public Service and the Professions (Stanford University Press, 2005), including:

[Forty-three percent] of lawyers surveyed were dissatisfied with their pro bono work and none were very satisfied. The specific concerns expressed included the feeling that their pro bono work was not truly pro bono, but unpaid work for paying clients, relatives, personal legal matters of partners, and work for the “pet organizations” of certain partners.

So I guess things haven’t changed much in 12-13 years.

You may remember that the second part of the ARDC’s mandatory pro bono information involves monetary contributions. This one is easy. Lawyers generally have more money than we have time, especially those of us with young children, aging parents, or other family needs. It is also a nice reminder (thank you, ARDC), for those of us who haven’t yet given to legal aid at the end of year, to do so. My organization benefits from unsolicited donations at this time of year, thanks to this ARDC question.

Unfortunately, the first ARDC question — the one about hours providing legal services to people in need — does not result in an uptick of pro bono interest or activity. Why not? A colleague of mine hypothesized that it may be the order in which the questions are asked. Asking for dollars second is a way to rationalize the zero hours entered in the first. See the first chapter of Freakonomics.

Recently, I heard someone say, “If the devil can’t make you bad, they’ll make you busy.” I can’t add extra hours to the day, but I can make better use of the ones I have. I can prioritize my service to others as something that is important — even critical — to my professional development and well-being, to my role as a citizen and a community member, and to my children’s futures. If this strikes a chord, then join me in a New Year’s resolution for 2018.

More than a year ago, ILAO started a pro bono program called Free Legal Answers, generously funded by the Illinois Bar Foundation. In terms of pro bono, it doesn't get much easier. It is anonymous, asynchronous, limited scope, and can be completed from any internet connected device. It is my New Year’s Resolution to do pro bono through this program. I resolve to make time to spend at least 2 hours per month answering the civil legal questions of lower-income people in Illinois. So when I do my ARDC reporting next year, I will enter a “24” in the hours column, instead of a “0”. 

Want to join me? Register now.

Visit Illinois Legal Aid Online for more information.

Want to start your training now? See our videos:

IL Free Legal Answers Overview for Attorneys (5-minute video)

How to Become a Volunteer Attorney on Free Legal Answers (7-minute video)

Tips for Lawyers Answering Questions on IL Free Legal Answers (10-minute video)

As Program Director, Teri leads ILAO's content, technology and outreach staff. She fosters strategic partnerships with local and national leaders and groups, pursues innovations, and leads development of new and transformed products and services. A graduate of DePaul College of Law & Northwestern University, Teri has the unfortunate distinction of being the sole non-redhead in her family.

Posted on January 2, 2018 by Sara Anderson
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