Our Responsibility to Pro Bono and Where It All Fits

pro bonoThere is a recent movement in charitable giving known as “effective altruism” which strives to maximize the good from donations of one’s time, skills (e.g. pro bono work), and, particularly, money. In other words, it is “combining the head and the heart, so as to give where it matters (minimize death and suffering) and in the most effective manner (maximize the amount of lives saved),” as described by one of the leaders of effective altruism, Peter Singer.

Moreover, effective altruism is not solely focused on where you can donate your earnings to have the most impact on, say, global poverty and disease. It goes further by encouraging us to create a new lifestyle around living a minimalistic, yet comfortable life so we may commit a substantial part of our remaining resources to make the world a better place. Only then one may live a fully committed life doing the most good they can do. For example, at Giving What We Can, you may commit to donating at least ten percent of your lifetime earnings to charity. It is a self-described “community of effective givers” seeking to “inspire people to donate significantly and as effectively as possible.”

But if you think being an effective altruist demands for you to quit your day job, move into your car, and shift to a diet of ramen noodles so you may donate away your life’s earning, you’ve got it all wrong. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

If you want to save the most lives, don’t just work harder. Work harder at the jobs that might make you the most money, such as becoming an investment banker for one, says Singer. Thus, it’s no surprise that Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet are said to be the most effective altruists in human history, saving millions of lives and increasing the quality of life for many, many millions more. They have the remarkable net worth to makes such a remarkable impact.

Pro Bono Doesn’t Just Serve a Need

Money is just one pillar of the foundation of giving. Lawyers have other assets beyond financial contributions to dedicate to our fulfillment of society’s needs. As the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct reminds us, “Lawyers play a vital role in the preservation of society. The fulfillment of this role requires an understanding by lawyers of their relationship to our legal system.”

Our legal training and corresponding skills and abilities empower us to help those who may not be empowered to help themselves. Engaging in pro bono work not only serves the access to justice needs of our communities, it often creates an impact in the lives of others beyond measure.

Yet… you’re heard this all before, I’m sure. You should participate in pro bono because it helps your community. Because it addresses the ongoing needs of the access to justice problems which legal aid is understaffed and underfunded to solve. Because it serves as a marketing tool for yourself and your practice. Because it might give you career experience in alternative practice areas of the law. And these reasons are all certainly true.

So, do it for another reason. Just as effective altruists report living a much happier life through giving, you should do it because it feels good. The lives you’re impacting (and even saving) includes your own. You have more meaning, worth, self-esteem, gratification, joy. You have found your place in giving to others, and will experience a return on that giving.

It is no surprise that we see the same lawyers doing pro bono time and time again. They have discovered an additional place in their “vital role in the preservation of society.” While the clients they served repaid them with gratitude in lieu of money, they realize more than ever where our relationship with the legal system fits.

To quote Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke’s message to new lawyer admittees in Illinois, “It is my belief that a legal degree is two things – it is an obligation to help others and a medium by which that assistance can be bestowed.” Take your responsibility to do more, with the skills and abilities you’ve developed, and find your own joy along the way.

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