5 Rules for Being a Great Volunteer Attorney

 

Nine years into working for Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, a nonprofit, has allowed me to see quite an array of lawyers and lawyering.  Almost all lawyers I have worked with want to do good for the community taking on pro bono cases with the best of intentions, despite their grueling workload.  Here are some of my observations on what distinguishes the mediocre pro bono relationship from the superb.

1. KNOW THYSELF

Think about your goal before signing up to take on a volunteer case.  Do you want to learn a new area of law?  Feel compelled to help a certain population, such as veterans, the ill, the elderly, children, immigrants, or others?  Want to be in Court?  Solely want transactional work?  There are opportunities out there abound, so make sure you pick something that you feel invested in.  That way, you will care about the case and your client’s success automatically.

2. GET TO KNOW YOUR CLIENT

Keep in mind that you are likely the first interaction your client has had with an attorney- make it a positive one!  Try to not scare them with complicated legal talk and instead start the relationship by getting to know them as people- where they came from and what makes them tick, what hobbies they may have, their hopes for the future, etc.   Let them know why you felt compelled to help them.  I’ve had many clients comment to me over the years that they didn’t realize that fancy big law offices were real- they had only seen office like that on TV.  You may take your nice office with a receptionist for granted, but many clients can be intimidated by it.

3. DON’T TAKE ON MORE THAN YOU CAN REALISTICALLY HANDLE

Things happen, but know what kind of commitment you are signing up for.  I try to give all of our volunteers an estimate of hours and timeline before they take a case.  Be realistic with what you can juggle and do a good job on.  If you need to bring on help, do it sooner rather than later.  If a big project or case comes up, let the agency you are working for and your client know as soon as you do.  Odds are as long as you are honest, the relationship with the legal service provider and the client will be fine and alternative arrangements can be made.

4. IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE LAW, PARTNER WITH SOME WHO DOES

If you feel lost, ask.  All legal services organizations should have mentors or attorneys to answer your questions.  If they don’t have someone that can help if you get stuck, then don’t sign up unless you know the nuances of the practice area.  When I send over a case, I give our attorneys a manual as well as sample filings.  Then, I review anything they would like a second set of eyes on.  I also go with volunteers to court if they aren’t comfortable.  You should never be “winging it” with pro bono work.

5. BE RESPECTFUL OF TIME

Pro Bono clients are just as inpatient as any other type of clients.  Maybe even more since they haven’t had many other legal interactions.  There can be a tendency to put these files on the backburner, but you need to treat them just like all other clients for responding timely and prosecuting their case.   Even if it is a 1 minute email or phone call saying there are no new updates, make it a priority to be responsive.  Set a realistic timeline when you first meet with them and try to stick to it.

 

Melissa Weaver, Women & Children’s Program Attorney