I can’t even give it away… adventures in Pro-Bono

Sometime early in my second year, I showed up to one of the myriad of free lunches that were my stock and trade. This particular lunch, as so many, had a panel of attorneys discussing something theoretically relevant to our future as attorneys. I truly have no recollection of the gist of the panel, but one of the attorneys ended up mentioning something without much exposition which turned out to be ridiculously prescient to my specific situation. He was talking about how the legal community of different geographic locations had distinct personalities. At the time, there was no way for me (or for that matter any law student) to understand what he was talking about and I generally pushed it to the back of my mind to focus on the more pressing questions of the day such as why the law school didn’t order a higher quality pizza for these lunches.

I will preface this also by saying that some things do change after you graduate and become barred. You change classifications within the eyes of the professionals around you. You go from being someone to mentor and offer advice and possibly garner free work from as an intern; to someone who is potentially a competitor or at best a peer with no usable experience to exploit. It happens to all law students once you earn the liability of your bar card. So with that in mind…

The city I went to law school in was a medium sized city, not large to be sure but the metro area sprawled and there was a fair draw to the area for a number of reasons. Anyway, the legal community was incredibly welcoming. I had interactions with a ton of different attorneys and firms throughout the city, from small solos to legal aid to regional offices of the biggest firms in the country. I had a public interest internship which allowed me interactions with most of the legal community in the city in some respect. I also volunteered as often as I could at legal aid. The legal aid office was staffed by attorneys who devoted more time and energy to doing Poverty Law than you can imagine. They were paid badly, but they showed up on weekends and evenings to far flung locations to service the community. If someone passed along a tip on how they might be able to draw a wider net to help more people, they were open to it and would follow thru as best as humanly able. They were and still are the only ‘true believers‘ that I will ever have any respect for in the legal field.

Then I moved. I didn’t move incredibly far in my opinion geographically. It wasn’t like I went from New York City to Mobile, Alabama where you might expect the obvious varieties of influences to vastly change the landscape of professional and social interaction. No, I moved a few hours and crossed the state line into the neighboring state from where I had gone to law school. I may as well have crossed the border into Tijuana. The city was imperceptibly smaller, but otherwise a near mirror image in terms of  population and businesses.

The legal community there was what I can only describe as paranoid, closed, and feral. My first taste of this was during my initial short lived (first) fellowship. described in gory detail previously so no need to relive that one. But, one of the gems dropped by the untreated bipolar attorney from that fellowship was that in this state, no public official generally lasted 9 months before having some sort of criminal charges filed against them in relation to their office. In my time here, it seems to be a scarily accurate assessment of the state government (same state as the Gaming Commission interviews… hmm). This is just to give you a general flavor of the area, and it may explain what comes next.

So as my fellowship came to an end and I got my (first of many) bar numbers, I ended my ability to be used for free labor officially. But now I could do that thing that every law school and every presenter you’ve ever listened to at a CLE pleads with you to do… Pro Bono work. Right. I had been volunteering continuously in law school with Legal Aid and I liked doing it, this should be easy to find someone who can use a free lawyer. On top of that, I was fabulously unemployed so I had a significant amount of free time in which to devote to a good cause. I was sure I can do something worthwhile.

My first stop was the local Legal Aid Office. It turned out that Legal Aid had morphed into a children’s guardian ad litem group in this city, but was still technically legal aid. In the entire time I lived in this city, I applied to half a dozen job postings with them and offered to volunteer both in person at their office, and another half dozen times thru email with my qualifications attached. I never received a single response. Since that was generally a bust, I tried the other free legal services offering in the city that was geared towards adults. My first experience with them was when I first got to the city. I called up to feel out volunteering there and they asked me my qualifications. I started talking about my background with various types of law as well as my legal aid experience and at the end of it all, the person on the phone just said “What do we need with an Intellectual Property lawyer… ” and hung up. I had merely mentioned my IP background but actually explained mostly about my experience with legal aid. I was dumbstruck holding my phone. Maybe I had just gotten a particularly dense secretary. Yeah.. maybe that was it. So I manage to hook up with another attorney who is volunteering at their organization and follow them over to a bankruptcy clinic. I have no real bankruptcy background at all, I was just along for the ride and so that I could try to talk to the organizers. At the end of the clinic, I get a chance to talk to the organization’s attorney organizer; the head honcho for all of the legal aid affairs. I give them the same general speech about wanting to volunteer, and I explain that I have quite a bit of family law background etc etc. She looks at me and says “Do you do bankruptcies?” I say no, I’m here with so-and-so attorney who is a bankruptcy attorney but I have all this other stuff you could use. She cuts me off.

“Nah, we get federal funding for the bankruptcy clinics otherwise we couldn’t be doing them. We used to do family law but we don’t get paid to do that anymore. Sorry, we can’t use you.”

Reread that if necessary. Apparently the only way to get any sort of pro-bono work done for you in the city was if you were a juvenile in the system, or a bankrupt adult. Nothing in between. Later, I contacted the local office of the state Supreme Court thinking.. hmm.. maybe they would know of something. They passed me off to a wing of legal services who gave me contact info of someone who supposedly can get me in touch with volunteer services. This person turns out to be a librarian. Not a lawyer. Who offers me the ability to research and write for him, on his professional papers. Huh? To recap, the Supreme Court referred me to some random non-lawyer guy who wants me to help write his papers that he posts on SSRN.

Being a glutton for punishment, I continue on in my quest. I run across a legal volunteer service that provides free drafting of wills to first responders and their spouses. I show up to a several hour long training session wherein they take my contact info so they can send out info on when the next clinic will be… and for months I never hear back from them. Thinking maybe they lost the contact info, or possibly copied it down wrong, I send a message along to the organizer of the clinic. And I hear nothing back from them either. To this day several years later, they have never once contacted me.

Recently, I contacted the local bar association, thinking that maybe something had changed. Apparently the only thing that had changed was that they put up a shiny new web page touting all the pro-bono opportunities available. I’m sure you know where this is going, but I contacted a bunch of them. I heard back from one. They said they might be able to use me once a month for a day, but I have yet to hear anything back from them since then. I have become so desperate to do something, I contacted a law firm and offered to work for free for 6 months to get some experience in their specific area of law. A barred and certified attorney trying to give away billable hours for free. What was the response? Probably no, but the manager would bring it to the attention of the hiring committee in 2 months. I wanted to point out the ticking clock and reassert that I was moving out of state at the end of 6 months, but I see no reason to bother.

My degree and bars are so useless, I can’t even give away my services. So the next time someone tells you that as a lawyer you need to give away your services for free, laugh. Laugh at them and walk away.

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