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Philly lawyers are doing more pro bono work than ever

A pro bono clinic run by Philly VIP. October 17, 2017 Category: EventFeaturedFundingMedium
Georgetown Law says lawyers have a “professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.” But what’s in it for them?

Selfishly, they could think of volunteering their legal expertise in terms of their own professional development, the ability to learn new subject areas, networking. Altruistically, though, they can think of it as benefitting not only themselves, but the greater good.

Next week is National Pro Bono Week. On Tuesday morning, the Philadelphia Bar Association and Philadelphia Bar Foundation hosted a community forum on the 2017 Pro Bono Task Force Report, the updated version of a 2002 report on the same topic.

“As lawyers, we have a legal and ethical obligation to help those whose needs are great and for whom our assistance can be life-changing,” writes Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Deborah Gross in the foreword.

Read the report

Speakers included:

  • Hon. Annette M. Rizzo, co-chair, Philadelphia Bar Association 2017 Pro Bono Task Force
  • John P. Lavelle Jr., co-chair, Philadelphia Bar Association 2017 Pro Bono Task Force
  • Jessica R. Hilburn-Holmes, executive director, Philadelphia Bar Foundation
  • Rashida T. West, director for pro bono and public interest programs, Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law
  • Sophie Bryan, executive director, Philadelphia VIP
  • Syon Bhanot, assistant professor of economics at Swarthmore College

Lavelle said the task force found that there’s been a “meaningful” increase in Philly pro bono work over the years, especially in large private firms.

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Still, there are common challenges to recruiting lawyers to work pro bono: They’re generally strapped for time, sometimes unfamiliar with pro bono cases’ subject matters and often have a hard time knowing where to find cases that do match their interests.

Recommendations via the task force report include expanding the one-day clinic model (which tends to be “really successful,” Lavelle said), as well as more trainings and a centralized referral system. The Bar Association can play a role in some of those, especially in connecting lawyers to pro bono organizations that match their professional interests.

Some other recommendations to increase pro bono work in Philly:

Start ’em young.

West runs Drexel’s pro bono program, which requires participation from all law students. Most of the school’s grads are millennials, and West said it’s a challenge “trying to communicate with this new breed of attorney.”

Lucky for West, the desire for impact is written in millennials’ DNA. Still, she strives to make volunteering “engrained” in the school’s culture and entices students to go beyond the required number of hours by recognizing them at graduation if they’ve done so.

Bryan called this “orientation to giving” an “encouraging trend” — “we’ve already been blown away by the interest from Drexel alumni” to participate in Philly VIP work, she said.

Recognize and credit those who do pro bono work.

Lavelle said his firm, Morgan Lewis, has a pro bono challenge in which every attorney is asked to complete 20 hours of pro bono work per year. “If you do, you get a piece of Lucite,” he joked — but truly, people respond to receiving trophies and other acknowledgements of their work. This method also emphasizes that every employee has a role to play in giving back.

Similarly, Bryan said Philly VIP spotlights a Volunteer of the Month on its website, and in their spotlight interview asks what drives them and what lasting relationships they gain from volunteering.

Tap into urgency.

Gross mentioned Take Action Philly, a gathering of the Philadelphia legal community launched in February of this year to discuss how best to aid the city’s immigrant and refugee populations, where Pennsylvania Immigrant and Citizen Coalition ED Sundrop Carter stated unequivocally that “we don’t need volunteers, we need badass allies.”

It’s been a matter of lawyers realizing they’re the ones with the power to “uphold the rule of law” during turbulent political times, Gross said. “It has been a tremendous year of lawyers stepping up.”


Philadelphia VIP Legal Clinic

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