Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC
I have to come to firmly believe that pro bono work helps form better leaders and better lawyers.
Of course, it makes lawyers better by affording them opportunities to try a case or handle an appeal or take a deposition that they might not otherwise have for years later but for their pro bono matter.
The most profound leadership benefits of pro bono work, however, are less obvious. Good leaders have to develop a keen ability to listen carefully. Representing pro bono clients can be challenging because sometimes the clients don’t recognize that they have more than one legal problem. Likewise, they often don’t recognize that the legal problem that they have identified is actually not their most significant legal problem. Doing pro bono work teaches a lawyer to listen carefully so that she can identify a more holistic solution to the client’s set of problems, not just a solution to one difficulty.
Many lawyers don’t represent everyday people, they represent organizations, entities, and corporations. Doing pro bono work exposes a lawyer to what it’s like to represent a human being.
Effective leaders must be empathetic. Pro bono lawyers must understand how bewildering the legal system is to someone without a college or legal education. Representing pro bono clients enhances a lawyer’s ability to put themselves in the shoes of other people and to express sincere empathy and gain their trust.
Leaders need to have courage in the face of adversity. The cause of a pro bono client may be unpopular. The cause of a pro bono client may be extremely difficult due to the mismatch in resources between the client and the adverse party. Pro bono lawyers develop courage.
These days, good leaders have to creatively harness the power of new technology. An effective pro bono lawyer must use all the resources at their disposal, especially those available for little or no cost. Pro bono lawyers have to think creatively about how to marshal resources even when their client has little or no income to spend on their matter. Doing pro bono work teaches lawyers to do more with less, which leads to an enhancement of their leadership skills.
Pro bono lawyers are often acting in the public interest. They may be handling a case with important precedential impact, or advancing a social movement, or even helping pass a statutory reform. This type of pro bono work reminds lawyers of their aspirational duties as outlined in the preamble of the Rules of Professional Conduct, where it is stated that they should be public citizens, and guardians of our system of justice. Pro bono work naturally develops an appreciation in a lawyer about how the “least of these” is treated by our justice system. Helping a pro bono client get their driver’s license back or helping them get their record expunged brings an acute appreciation for what may be important necessary reforms to our system of justice.
So if you want your law school to develop better leaders before they graduate, place an emphasis on students receiving meaningful pro bono experiences before they graduate. If you want the young lawyers in your firm or legal department to grow in their leadership skills — to listen, to empathize, to do more with less, to be creative, and to be courageous, encourage them to do more pro bono work.
And oh by the way, good leaders are purposeful about the legacies they leave. Lawyers who use their legal education and experience to do pro bono work are happier at their jobs and more satisfied with their professional legacies. They will learn to prioritize what David Brooks called in his bestselling book The Road to Character “eulogy values” over “resume values.” It is a journey that shapes better lawyers, better leaders, and better people.