How to Find Purpose Through Pro Bono Work

arms of diverse individuals coming togetherFinding purpose in our lives is more important than ever. From the global pandemic, to the death of George Floyd, to the contentious election, 2020 has been beyond unpredictable and dispiriting.

Yet, as the Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodron asks, “What if rather than being disheartened by the ambiguity, the uncertainty of life, we accepted it and relaxed into it?”

For lawyers, one way to relax into unpredictability is to take control of what we can. Attorneys can realize our value by supporting our community in ways that only we can. I think finding our purpose through pro bono work is the answer.

Seize This Moment for Pro Bono

This is exactly what Tiffany M. Graves, pro bono counsel at Bradley in Jackson, Miss., advocates. “I think it is important for lawyers to recognize the opportunities that this moment presents. We now have time to research and consider what we want our practice to look like going forward, how we can better integrate pro bono and community service into our practices, and how we can tap into practice areas that we have not had time to explore up to this point,” Graves said.

Even before COVID-19, the most recent Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Justice Gap Report showed 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. According to John G. Levi, chairman of the LSC board of directors and a partner in Sidley’s Chicago office, during this time of pandemic and social unrest, the legal profession must “roll up [its] sleeves and get involved…It is all hands on deck for access to the justice system in our country and we must play our part in helping to narrow the gap.”

Discovering Purpose Through Pro Bono

Finding purpose through pro bono work isn’t new to many Illinois attorneys – it has even motivated some to change career paths. As an associate at what was Sidley and Austin LLP in Chicago, Barbara Barreno-Paschall represented immigrants seeking asylum as part of her pro bono work. This work led her to public policy school, then on to positions at a civil rights organization and now in state government.

Barreno-Paschall encourages everyone to do pro bono work including short-term projects. While it may just be “three to five hours of your time, it makes all the difference to the person you represent,” she said.

In Champaign, Ill., Brett A. Kepley, who had previously enjoyed a long and varied career in private practice, recognized his passion for service when a staff attorney opportunity opened in his practice area at Land of Lincoln Legal Aid. Kepley believes the legal profession must respond to COVID-19’s devastating impact on the community, and especially on low-income Illinoisans.

“The fundamental requirements of life—housing, healthcare,  transportation and employment— should not be legally deprived to those because they cannot afford a lawyer. Now is the time for those of us who can, to step up and put forth,” Kepley said.

Leaders Redefine Success Through Pro Bono

Stepping up and leading by example is key to pro bono work becoming the norm in the legal profession. According to Steven S. Fus, retired associate general counsel of United Airlines and a pro bono attorney and legal advisor in Chicago, “Once pro bono becomes part of the definition of ‘success,’ you don’t see it as ‘going beyond’ and instead view it as essential. Our ABA rules of professional responsibility recognize this, but far too few in the profession treat it that way.”

The leaders of the law department at State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. in Bloomington, Ill., acknowledge this responsibility and demonstrate their commitment to pro bono work through action.

“Verbal support is great and very important, but modeling behavior really demonstrates that this type of service and behavior is welcome and perhaps even expected,” said Michelle Mancias, assistant vice president and counsel at State Farm.

Senior Vice Present and General Counsel Steve McManus enjoys volunteering with the State Farm team at Prairie State Legal Services’ Saturday morning clinics. “As legal professionals and as State Farm employees, we recognize the responsibility and the opportunity to help people in our community in need of essential legal services,” McManus said.

Find Your Passion

In addition to answering the needs of our communities and fulfilling our professional responsibility as lawyers, pro bono work can help you find or reignite your passion. Fus describes his pro bono experiences as “life-changing and long-lasting for the clients and lawyers alike. They are the ones I talk about and the ones I recall when considering accomplishments.”

For people thinking about expanding their practice or taking on pro bono cases, Fus advises finding a cause or an injustice that you’re passionate about or even one that just bothers you. “Pro bono work is needed in practically every area of the law that we practice,” he said. “Pursuing a legal cause that you make a personal investment in will produce more meaningful results, increase sustainability and help change the cultural characterization of a successful law practice.”

Kepley shares this sentiment. “If you are in this job because it’s fun, because it can make a difference for the betterment of society and thereby make individuals better for that assistance, then helping those who would otherwise be deprived of such help because they do not have the resources for remuneration is a reward you will garner that cannot be measured in any ledger,” he said.

National Pro Bono Week kicks off on Sunday, Oct. 25. What better time than now to make a difference and discover your purpose through pro bono work?

How are you giving back during National Pro Bono Week? Share in the comments below.

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