Pro Bono Service and Life’s Larger Purpose

PurposeMastering the art of discovery and the theater of a trial was fun. But after I had tried a half dozen cases or more, I started to feel a nagging disillusionment.  Leading up to the trial was a long period of gamesmanship, wordsmithing, verbal traps, and side skirmishes. Most of my litigation cases involved a fight over money. “Was this really the best use of my skills and talents?” I thought.  I experienced what I hear many lawyers also describe feeling: a disconnect between the good we thought would be the purpose of our careers and the reality of daily activities as a lawyer.

There are reports and stories and books about how unhappy lawyers are.  Maybe this dissatisfaction stems in part from forcing ourselves to focus not on right or good or higher purpose but on what is provable. Maybe this could be because it seems, according to the popular press, that faith or religion or morality is absent from our legal system.

True, as a constitutional premise, religion does not belong in the law.  There is a separation between church and state. That doesn’t mean that religion or religious beliefs can’t be part of lawyers’ lives if they so choose. In fact, the idea of lawyers’ work pro bono publico, or in the public service, is very similar to the tenets of many religions to give of our time, treasure or talents to those less fortunate.

Service and Religion both Spark a Greater Purpose

I got to thinking about the connection between pro bono service and religion when I attended a fundraiser for Catholic Charities Legal Assistance (CCLA) earlier this year.  Serving more than 1 million people a year, Catholic Charities is the largest provider of social services in the Midwest. The organization serves all faiths, with a mission to help low income individuals, including the working poor.

Social service providers have found that increasingly, people face legal hurdles to self-sufficiency, according to Monsignor Michael Boland, president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “We found that so many of our clients were not able to get on their feet despite robust social services due to various legal problems,” Msgr. Boland told me.  So he asked two Catholic Charities Board members, Mary Fitzpatrick, a former ERISA attorney, and Jeanne Casey, a former plaintiff’s attorney, to look into starting a legal clinic to complement the social services provided by Catholic Charities.

In 2005, Catholic Charities Legal Assistance opened its doors, and Fitzpatrick and Casey were the only attorneys. They began with a telephone advice line, and over the years, they have expanded to offer full representation in certain matters, brief services such as document review, and services via monthly advice desks located at more than 160 different locations throughout the Chicagoland area.

Currently, CCLA’s four full time staff attorneys strategically consider clients’ problems that come in through the telephone advice line and legal advice desks. They assess cases to determine whether a client’s matter can be accepted for direct representation either in-house or through a volunteer in CCLA’s pro bono network.

Casey explained that the “heart and soul” of CCLA are the volunteers.  In order to effectively harness the energy and dedication of the volunteers, Casey explained that the CCLA model is to break down the legal work into predictable time commitments. “We try to make it easy for busy lawyers to serve.” According to Fitzpatrick, “CCLA has many different opportunities for individuals and firms to help. We have a particular need for Spanish speaking individuals, both lawyers and non-lawyers.”

Various bar associations and other organizations also connect the talent and commitment of legal professionals to doing good for others in the community. And most of the religious-based organizations serve those of all faiths. Just a few examples:

  • Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago: promoting human welfare services to over 300,000 of all faiths in Chicago;
  • Christian Legal Aid: defending the religious liberties in the legislatures and courts and serving those most in need in our society.

Giving Unto Others Fulfills a Greater Purpose

For those who may not have organized religion in their lives, there are of course many opportunities for lawyers to serve that are not faith-based.  And serving others is good for both the recipient and the giver. As we have written on this blog before with respect to Millennials, people give when they feel the purpose really matters.

Research  showing the positive effects of giving abounds. For example, a 2013 study by United Health Group showed that employees who volunteered reported feeling healthier.  Respondents also reported that volunteering: put them in a better mood, reduced their feeling of stress; and enriched their sense of purpose in life.  The conclusions included that employees who give back are more likely to assist their colleagues and are less likely to quit their work. Donald Moynihan, one of the authors of the study said that helping others actually makes us happier. “Altruism is not a form of martyrdom but operates for many as a part of a healthy psychological reward system.”

A Harvard Business School study reported a causal connection between giving to others and happiness. And as I have written about before, Wharton Business professor Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take has some fascinating research about the benefits of giving.  He reported that the benefits of giving are not only psychological, but they translate to tangible rewards as well.  Givers end up achieving more success in their work lives.  For example, he concluded that salespeople who are motivated to help have the highest income and that engineers with the highest productivity and fewest errors are those who do more favors for colleagues than they receive.

Illinois Lawyers Give with a Purpose

Our profession, is exhorted in the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct to perform service for the public good.  Lawyers are therefore uniquely situated to foster a strong connection to service. Illinois lawyers report service hours and financial contributions to legal service organizations every year with their annual registration to the Attorney  Registration and Disciplinary Commission. The 2015 Annual Report has the statistics.  Of over 94,000 attorneys registered to practice law in Illinois, 31,362 lawyers reported performing 2,055,987 hours of pro bono service. In terms of monetary contributions, 17,565 attorneys contributed $14,802,544 to legal services organizations in 2015.

The figures are a bit dry.  Most of us know, because we have experienced it, there is an unquantifiable intrinsic benefit to service.  Think back to your most rewarding legal case or matter.  It most likely has stayed with your heart and mind because you felt like you really made a difference in someone’s life.

Our world gets more legally complex by the month.  We lawyers have a myriad of opportunities to help decipher the complexities and make the law work for people.  This month many organizations are touting the need for and availability of pro bono service.  For so many reasons, let’s get to it.

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