Pro Bono Myths and Realities: Legal Aid Organizations

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

As noted in my prior post in this week’s special Pro Bono Week series, legal aid organizations play a critical partnership role in pro bono by providing the necessary infrastructure to support pro bono work for lawyers, firms and companies. There are a multitude of benefits for the legal aid organization and its clients when the organization has a top down commitment to pro bono and makes the proper investments in pro bono.

When a legal aid organization runs a good pro bono program, the direct services that volunteers provide are just one part of the benefit. That impact can multiply in many other ways and the potential benefits are almost limitless. But when a pro bono program is mediocre or worse, the opposite can occur. It not only might sour the attorneys and their firms on the organization, it could dampen their view of pro bono and legal aid in general.

Given these dynamics, it is essential for a legal aid organization to commit to running a top-notch pro bono program that treats volunteers like valued customers; otherwise, it is better not to have a pro bono program at all.

Looking at Pro Bono Through the Proper Lens

Just as lawyers, firms and companies need to look at pro bono through the correct lens, so do legal aid organizations, just from a different angle of that lens. Once again, the three essential prisms are comparative advantage, those areas where a pro bono lawyer or firm is better positioned to efficiently provide services than the organization could by itself; proximity, which drawing on the great Bryan Stevenson is the importance of volunteers getting closer to the problems that the organization’s low-income and disadvantaged clients experience in the justice system; and opportunity, which reflects the many other benefits for the organization that come from a good pro bono program.

Comparative advantage in the legal aid context includes areas of experience and expertise pro bono lawyers can easily translate to serve clients or the organization itself. Examples of the former include lawyers volunteering in their practice area to expand the organization’s capacity to meet client needs or a firm providing a team of lawyers and other legal professionals to work with the organization on impact litigation. Examples of the latter include updating corporate articles and bylaws, negotiating a real estate lease, updating employment policies, and similar work. The common denominator is that pro bono lawyers can bring existing experience and expertise to the table that expands the organization’s ability to advance its mission.

Proximity in this context is the importance of pro bono lawyers being able to experience firsthand the challenges low-income and disadvantaged clients face in the justice system. While this won’t be practical for the organization’s practice areas that require deeper specialization or particularized experience, there are typically many areas of legal aid practice where pro bono lawyers have the requisite experience and expertise to be able to get up to speed relatively quickly in the practice area involved with some good training and support.

For example, while it isn’t realistic to expect a commercial litigator to handle a contested divorce or custody case or a complex immigration case, with some training and support that lawyer typically can start with an uncontested divorce or a less complex immigration petition. These are just two examples where pro bono can expose lawyers in private practice to clients and areas of the justice system they would not normally encounter. This has the immediate benefit of broadening the pro bono lawyer’s understanding of the importance of the legal aid organization’s work, and in many cases that lawyer after these initial experiences may be willing and able to take on more complex matters in those areas.

And that leads us to the opportunity prism, which in the legal aid context focuses on the many other ways that the organization can benefit from a good pro bono program beyond meeting real client needs. Lawyers who experience the legal aid organization’s work firsthand through pro bono and have a good experience typically become much stronger ambassadors for the organization in ways they otherwise could never have appreciated. They are more likely to be donors and to advocate for the organization both in their networks and in the larger policymaking process. And because more and more law firms and companies are tying their charitable giving more closely to their pro bono programs today, a good program can lead to increased financial support for the organization’s broader work as well.

It is important to always keep these proximity and opportunity prisms in mind when considering the organization’s larger pro bono strategy. The long-term benefits of involving volunteers in an organization’s work must be factored into the cost-benefit analysis of a pro bono program. Factoring in these broader long-term benefits typically makes it well worth the initial investments in the pro bono program as those investments multiply in so many different ways.

Giving Pro Bono Its Proper Due

While the many potential benefits of a good pro bono program are clear, like most good things in life those benefits won’t materialize without the organization making it a top-down priority and making the necessary investments. Too often we see legal aid organizations treating pro bono as a sidecar to its larger work rather than an integral part of the organization’s overall strategic plan, leading to many missed opportunities for the organization, its clients, and its overall mission.

There are three key things an organization can do to set itself up for success on the pro bono front. The first is for the leadership to prioritize pro bono as a fundamental part of the organization’s overall mission through a top-down commitment that comes with the requisite accountability. There is a big difference in the way that pro bono is prioritized in an organization when it is included as one of the organization’s key goals and there is management-level staff dedicated to pro bono to ensure accountability towards those goals.

The second key is making the proper investment in staff. Pro bono is a specialized function within a legal aid organization that requires the appropriate expertise. Recruiting, training and supporting the right kind of person for this position in the organization is just as important as it is for the organization’s other key legal staff positions.

Finally, the organization needs to make the proper investments to support the pro bono program. That includes regularly evaluating how potential pro bono interest among lawyers, firms and companies can be matched with organizational needs in a way that creates win-win opportunities for all involved. It also means treating the pro bono program, and each pro bono presentation or training associated with it, with the high level of importance that it deserves. And it means constantly communicating with the organization’s pro bono partners to learn what is working well, what could be improved, and where there may be potential new opportunities.

A good pro bono program takes commitment and it takes work, and the payoff from doing it well is real. You don’t have to just take my word for it; the success of the many legal aid organizations that do this well here in Chicago and around the country speaks for itself. The CBF’s Pro Bono Checklist includes best practice tips and resources from successful programs and is a great place to start if you are involved with an organization that is looking to expand or upgrade your pro bono program.

Read more in the Pro Bono Myths and Realities series

Part 1  Pro Bono: Myths, Realities, and Its Proper Role in Access to Justice

Part 2  Lawyers, Law Firms and Corporate Legal Departments

Part 3  Legal Aid Organizations

Part 4  The Role of Government

Part 5  The Role of the Courts

Part 6  Bar Associations, Foundations, Access to Justice Commissions, and Other Systemic Players

Part 7  Final Thoughts