Many lawyers justify their lax client screening and credit policies in the name of pro bono work. I know I certainly did when I was in private practice.
When they charge off a large unpaid balance as uncollectible, they say to themselves, “Well, at least I’ve done my share of pro bono for this year.” But the truth is they really haven’t done anything to provide access to the legal system for poor individuals if all they have done is work for nothing for a client who can afford to pay, but won’t. The decision to do pro bono work should always be made in advance – not after the fact. There are much better ways to handle your pro bono work.
The first, and best, way to handle civil pro bono is to sign up for the Alabama State Bar’s Volunteer Lawyer Program. Volunteer lawyers agree to handle no more than two cases a year in areas of the law that they choose when they sign up. Applicants for pro bono services are pre-screened before their case is assigned to a lawyer, so you don’t have to worry about giving your services to someone who really can afford them.
Once you take the case, your reporting requirements are simple. If the case is completed in less than three months, you return a case closing memo advising the VLP of the final disposition and the number of hours of volunteer legal service you contributed. If the case cannot be completed in three months, you are requested to provide a brief case status report at three month intervals. And if it’s just not a good time when you get a case, you can always ask to be skipped over for this round.
Even if you do participate in the Volunteer Lawyer Program, however, you will still find that some pro bono cases which come your way are justified on a personal basis, such as an opportunity to learn – or make – new law, to develop new skills, or to help people or causes you care about. To help you keep a solid handle on all the pro bono work you do, Paul MacLaughlin, former practice management advisor with the Law Society of Alberta, offered some great suggestions in his book Welcome to Reality: A New Lawyer’s Guide to Success. You can manage your pro bono work effectively if you follow these rules:
1. At the beginning of each year, establish the number of pro bono files and the number of pro bono hours you are willing to take on during that year, write them down, and do not exceed the number of hours except to finish out the last case.
2. Keep a written list of your pro bono cases and a running total of your pro bono hours near your desk and refer to these lists before you consider opening a new pro bono matter.
This way, when you meet a client who can’t afford to pay, you will have a framework within which to decide whether or not to take the case, and, if you don’t take it, you can have a clear conscience as you explain that each year you take on a certain number of cases at no charge or at reduced rates, but you have no openings on your list right now so you simply cannot help.