How Law Schools Can Form Better Leaders With Voluntary Pro Bono Opportunities

Tyler T. Sims
Director, UT Pro Bono
J.D. Candidate, 2019 | The University of Tennessee College of Law

There are two types of leaders in this world: big policy leaders and small action leaders. Big policy leaders tend to lead with incentives and delegation, focusing on overarching policy. Whether these incentives are in the form of carrots or sticks is determined by the particular style of a given leader. Small action leaders tend to lead with inspiration. They are the ones in the trenches, leading by example and acting in the way they want others to act as well. Neither of these leading styles is per se better than the other. In fact, I would argue that most people aim to be big policy leaders at some point in their careers. However, I would also argue that big policy leaders who have led via small actions at some point in their careers are more effective leaders than those who have not.

As Buck Lewis argued, in order to form better leaders and better lawyers, law schools should place an emphasis on students receiving meaningful pro bono experiences before they graduate. Furthering Buck’s point, I would argue that the way in which a law school implements its emphasis on pro bono opportunities affects the types of leaders the school is forming.

For instance, over the years, more law schools have become interested in mandatory pro bono service. Today, 36 accredited law schools have pro bono or public service graduation requirements. These schools include Harvard and the University of Chicago, both of which require their students to perform 50 hours of pro bono service before graduation. On the other hand, approximately 111 accredited law schools have some sort of administratively-supported voluntary pro bono program, with the remainder of schools relying solely on student organizations to provide pro bono opportunities.

Ultimately, the American Bar Association requires law schools to offer pro bono opportunities to students. Standard 302(b)(2) of the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools provides “a law school shall offer substantial opportunities for . . . student participation in pro bono activities.” Furthermore, the Preamble to these standards states that law schools “must provide an educational program that ensures that its graduates . . . understand the law as a public profession calling for the performance of pro bono legal services.” How a law school meets this obligation is up to the particular administration and arguably depends on the culture of the law school itself and the culture of the state the law school sits.

I argue that law schools implementing a non-mandatory, voluntary pro bono policy form more small action leaders, which on the back end, ultimately creates more effective big policy leaders in the future. Now, implementing a voluntary pro bono policy in lieu of a mandatory policy clearly has its drawbacks. For example, schools implementing a voluntary pro bono policy will likely have less percentage of pro bono participation among its students overall. However, forcing students to perform pro bono service creates fewer opportunities for students who are actually interested in pro bono. Depending on the community in which a particular law school sits, there may only be a set amount of pro bono opportunities available to law students. By making pro bono mandatory, you are ultimately forcing students—who may not care all that much about the work they are being forced to do—to take the place of students who care about the work being done. In doing this, you run the risk of students performing mediocre pro bono work, which ultimately may degrade the law school’s reputation among local community members, including non-profits, legal aid groups, and local attorneys.

As Buck said in his post, placing an emphasis on pro bono opportunities creates better leaders. It gives students real-world legal experience before graduation and most importantly creates more empathetic attorneys; attorneys who are more likely to continue their dedication to pro bono service after passing the bar. These attorneys make the types of leaders who are not afraid to get down in the trenches and represent the little guy. These attorneys are the types of leaders who inspire other attorneys in their field and in their law firms to do the same as they do. Ultimately, I argue these attorneys are the individuals who make the most effective big policy leaders later on in their careers. They lead through incentives in the form of carrots (not sticks) and inspire younger attorneys to lead in the same way, creating more effective small action leaders and big policy leaders alike.

So, if you are part of a law school’s administration who wants to form more effective, meaningful, and empathetic leaders—and therefore form better lawyers—focus your efforts on emphasizing voluntary pro bono service and creating pro bono opportunities for law students. Although mandatory pro bono service may boost a school’s numbers, it ultimately will have a detrimental effect on the types of leaders you are putting out into the legal community.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s