An attorney’s life is a busy one: it can be a struggle to balance the competing obligations of representing clients, developing business, keeping up on the law, improving one’s skills, handling administrative duties, mentoring others, and more, not to mention meeting family obligations and having some fun now and then.
Nevertheless, in the midst of these many other responsibilities, it is a lawyer’s duty to give of one’s time to those who need legal representation but cannot afford it. The recently revised SCCBA Code of Professionalism emphasizes this point: “A lawyer should donate legal services to individuals unable to afford those services. The SCCBA encourages all attorneys to provide at least 60 hours a year in direct legal assistance to the indigent.” SCCBA members can pledge to meet this goal in their online profiles on the SCCBA website.
Some attorneys are not inclined to do pro bono work, or feel they lack the time for it. That’s unfortunate. But more tragic is when attorneys who want to do pro bono work miss out because they don’t know how to get connected to clients in an area of interest, or worry that they won’t be able to tailor their involvement to the time they have available. Here I will identify some options and resources to help such attorneys get past those roadblocks.
It’s important to remember that not every pro bono engagement means a long-term commitment to grueling litigation. There are ways to provide service that can fit the schedule, temperament, and interests of just about any attorney. Moreover, many legal services agencies provide training on the relevant substantive law and procedure and have staff attorneys and other resources to help you along the way if you’re working in an unfamiliar area.
A great way to get started on your quest for a pro bono assignment is the “Pro Bono Opportunities” page on the SCCBA website (select “volunteer opportunities” from the “get involved” menu, then click on “Pro Bono Opportunities”). There you will see a wide range of options.
For example, clicking on the “SCCBA Pro Bono & Low Bono Opportunities” link will take you to a page that discusses, among other things, the SCCBA’s partnership with the Pro Bono Project of Silicon Valley on an initiative called “Virtual Legal Services.” That program allows you to consult with pro bono clients over the Internet from the comfort of your office or home. Pro Bono Project sets up computers at locations like libraries, community centers, or the SCCBA headquarters to make it easier for clients to communicate with you over the Internet. This is a great program for attorneys who may want to help needy clients while limiting their time commitment.
Another link on the SCCBA pro bono web page will connect you to “Opportunities with Other Silicon Valley Legal Service Agencies.” Here we list ten local legal services agencies, including Asian Law Alliance, Bay Area Legal Aid, Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, Pro Bono Project, and Senior Adults Legal Assistance. As the names indicate, these agencies provide services in many areas of law, to many different client groups, in diverse parts of the county (and some neighboring counties).
Of course, the sheer number of available options can be daunting for someone who wants to identify a pro bono opportunity quickly and without hassle. Here are a few descriptions and tips that may help.
The Law Foundation, which was founded by a group of SCCBA leaders in 1974, has grown into a robust and prominent organization. They can quickly connect you to a pro bono opportunity in a variety of areas that mostly relate to helping needy youth. The Law Foundation also hosts a weekly eviction assistance clinic that may be perfect for attorneys who want a bite-size project, or who prefer counseling to litigation. Similar considerations may make the Law Foundation’s Nonprofit Legal Assistance Project an attractive option.
Two other areas in which attorneys can provide crucial assistance on matters that typically have a relatively short duration are domestic violence and eviction cases. Both involve summary proceedings that often have little or no discovery. Several agencies can connect you to victims of domestic violence who need help obtaining temporary restraining orders against their abusers, or who already have TROs but need assistance getting permanent orders. Such agencies include Bay Area Legal Aid, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, and Pro Bono Project. If helping a tenant with an eviction case sounds more appealing, you might try Bay Area Legal Aid, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, or Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto.
Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto also partners with attorneys on pro bono immigration matters. They help clients obtain permission to stay in the U.S. based on asylum, the Violence Against Women Act, and other grounds. For a different angle on immigration work, the Ninth Circuit has a program through which clients get pro bono representation in appeals involving immigration and other issues. This program may be of particular interest to attorneys seeking appellate argument experience, as “[t]he court has committed to hearing oral argument in all cases in which pro bono counsel is appointed through the program.”
An agency I have not yet mentioned is the Family Violence Appellate Project, based in Oakland but working with attorneys throughout the Bay Area. As their name suggests, they focus on appeals in domestic violence cases. Their goal is to develop a more robust body of case law to provide guidance to trial courts handling such matters, preferably in a way that will benefit victims of domestic violence. Attorneys who take on these pro bono appeals can gain oral argument experience and often make new law. FVAP also seeks moot court participants, who provide valuable assistance with a much smaller time commitment.
Yet another form of pro bono work involves providing translation services, either in court or during attorney-client consultations. The need here is great, in every language imaginable. Importantly, this opportunity is open not only to attorneys but to anyone in a law office (or elsewhere) who would like to donate time for a good cause. Agencies that solicit pro bono translation services include Bay Area Legal Aid and Pro Bono Project.
Hopefully I have persuaded you that you can easily find a pro bono opportunity in an area of interest that will fit the time you have available. And I have only scratched the surface: I would encourage you to check out these agencies’ websites—most of them accessible through the SCCBA web page mentioned above—to learn more about their pro bono programs. Among other things, they offer many other clinics beyond those I have mentioned here that will allow you to contribute even if you only have a single afternoon available.
I’d like to make two final points. First, as yet another way to control your time commitment, consider teaming up with another attorney who can share the load with you. You might even have a client who would appreciate the chance to work with you on such a matter. Second, if you decide that you just can’t afford the time (or even if you can), consider donating money. Any of the agencies I’ve mentioned here would be happy to have your financial support. Or you can give to the Campaign for Legal Services (www.svcls.org), which will spread the wealth among eight different local agencies.
If you have any comments on this President’s Message, or any suggestions for the SCCBA, I encourage you to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (650) 614-7431.