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Public Interest Careers


By Ken Mayeaux

I must admit that as a young lawyer I didn't value pro bono service as much as I do today.  I was a busy commercial litigation associate in a large law firm.  Billable hour requirements, the stress of large-scale complex litigation, and a firm culture that did not value pro bono service made it difficult to fit pro bono representation into my practice.  But a lot has changed in 25 years in my own professional life and in the profession as a whole.  As I moved up the associate ranks, I began taking pro bono cases through our local pro bono project.  Over those years the profession's appreciation and support for pro bono service also deepened. 

I only wish I knew then what I know now about why pro bono service is so vital to the profession and to every lawyer's career.  Why do pro bono?  Let me share some lessons I and others have learned.

Pro Bono Service Is My Professional Responsibility

The very first sentence of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct reminds us that as members of the legal profession we have a "special responsibility for the quality of justice."  Rule 6.1 of the Model Rules tells us we can meet our responsibility to render public interest legal service by, among other things, providing professional services at no fee or a reduced fee to persons of limited means.  As the privileged keepers and ministers of our country's complex and bewildering immigration system, immigration attorneys have a special responsibility to ensure that all people, regardless of the ability to pay, have access to justice.

Pro Bono Service Builds Dynamic Law Firms

Younger (and older) attorneys are often looking for deeper meaning in their careers.  A firm with a strong pro bono culture attracts young attorneys and gives them an opportunity to feel connected to a larger mission of promoting justice, not simply providing legal services for pay.  A firm's strong pro bono commitment can create a positive work environment and foster a sense of pride and accomplishment as the firm's attorneys perform pro bono service.  This in turn can foster greater attorney satisfaction and lower turnover.  Larger firms have found that the attorneys who do the most pro bono work are also some of the firm's busiest and most profitable lawyers – doing pro bono is clearly not a zero-sum game.

Pro Bono Service Is a Great Way to Develop New Practice Areas and Skills

Representing pro bono clients also offers a great opportunity to extend the reach of your practice and develop new skills.  For example, pro bono representation provides a way for a lawyer to develop litigation skills and branch out into a whole new practice area.  Many nonprofit legal service organizations provide mentoring, training and support to the attorneys who accept pro bono referrals making those first tentative steps into a new practice area a little easier.

Pro Bono Service is Good for Business

As a lawyer in private practice, whether in a large or small firm or as a solo practitioner, attracting and keeping paying clients is always an important part of your work.  Featuring your practice’s commitment to pro bono service in your marketing materials attracts clients.  Corporate clients see a lawyer or firm with a demonstrated commitment to pro bono as a good citizen and vital contributor to the local community.

Pro bono service also raises an attorney’s profile in the local legal community and helps forge deep ties with nonprofit legal providers and other immigration stakeholders.  These attorneys are in turn often seen as the "go to" attorneys when non-immigration attorneys need to refer their clients for immigration advice.

Finally, we all know that client referrals are vital to an immigration practice.  A pro bono client will often be the source of referral for future paying clients.  I still remember one of my first pro bono cases.  Back in the day when some criminal court judges still appointed attorneys out of the phone book, I was appointed to defend a criminal case.  For months after winning a jury acquittal for my pro bono client, I continued to receive calls from a network of his friends and relatives wanting to retain me to defend their criminal cases.  Today's pro bono cancellation of removal or VAWA client may refer tomorrow's paying client or may even be that future paying client petitioning for naturalization and other family-based immigration benefits. 

Pro Bono Service Saves Lives

Closing the gap between the millions of persons who need legal assistance but can't afford it and the limited resources of nonprofit legal service organizations to meet those needs is one of the greatest challenges facing the private bar.  The challenge is all the more compelling in the area of immigration representation where stepped up enforcement and the marginalization of immigrants has caused many immigrants to go unrepresented in an immigration justice system that often metes out the equivalent of a death sentence.  Pro bono attorneys are crucial to bridging that gap.  Their services often literally save lives.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Pro bono service is also good for the soul.  It takes you out of the economy of exchange and puts you in touch with people who have nothing to offer in payment but their thanks.  It takes you to people and communities you might not have otherwise known.  It expands your understanding of human suffering.  And it just might change your own life.

As I moved up the associate ranks of my firm as a young lawyer, I began to take more and more pro bono cases through our local pro bono project – helping families with adoption and representing children in abuse and neglect cases.  After I became a partner, I came to appreciate and to look forward to my pro bono cases as a respite from the often relentless grind of commercial litigation.  More importantly, I experienced deep satisfaction in getting to know my clients and examining the world of poverty and marginalization that had brought them to me.  Eventually, my work with poor clients inspired a new career path for me.  It led me and my family to live among poor farmers in Mexico, to work with immigration detainees in Arizona, and now, to advocate for immigrants in south Louisiana.  I know I’ve helped change some of my pro bono clients’ lives for the better.  But they’ve also saved and transformed mine.

Ken Mayeaux is an Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at Louisiana State University Paul M Hebert Law Center where he directs the Law Center's Immigration Clinic.  He is a member of the AILA National Pro Bono Service Committee and is Chair of the Baton Rouge Bar Foundation’s Pro Bono Committee.

Updated from AILA Pro Bono Newsletter (Summer 2011). Copyright (c) 2011, American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).


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