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Tick Tock. New Year's Resolution? Find Time.

By Teri Ross on December 22, 2017
An image of a clock for those who need to make time to volunteer

Like many Illinois attorneys, I recently completed my ARDC registration. Like you, I had to answer “Mandatory Pro Bono Information” questions. In particular, this one -

Well, honestly (as my mother used to say), who wants to answer ‘No’ to that? There must have been something I’d done that I could report on. Think think think. I reflect on my extracurricular activities in 2017 - scout mom, active church member, elementary school volunteer, letter writer and other social justice advocacy. Can I report on any of that?

Now, it’s not like I don’t know what pro bono is. I work for a legal-aid, non-profit organization, which offers great, online information about pro bono not to mention a whole directory of Illinois pro bono opportunities. My problem is that I haven’t done any pro bono work. I am a lawyer, so of course, I could try to justify some of my activities listed above to wedge (awkwardly) into the pro bono categories. But the truth is, I have not done anything outside of my paid employment that equates to “legal services to a person/persons of limited means.”

My work at Illinois Legal Aid Online does not count as pro bono because I get paid for it. Like many attorneys, my average work week is longer than that of other workers, but this is what it means to be a modern, professional employee. As a steadfast believer in equal justice, I have long struggled with this tension - I work above and beyond to increase access to justice, but this is also part of my job. How do I fit in pro bono?

One of our professional responsibilities as lawyers is to contribute to the public good. We are a mostly self-regulated profession and as such must ensure that our profession is meeting certain standards, including giving back. In researching this blog, I came across this excellent article by the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation Managing Attorney Mike Fiello (now the Honorable Michael Fiello). He summarizes some findings from Deborah Rhode’s book Pro Bono in Principle and Practice: Public Service and the Professions (Stanford University Press, 2005), including:

43% of lawyers surveyed were dissatisfied with their pro bono work, and none were very satisfied. The specific concerns expressed included the feeling that their pro bono work was not truly pro bono, but unpaid work for paying clients, relatives, personal legal matters of partners, and work for the “pet organizations” of certain partners.

So I guess things haven’t changed much in 12 or 13 years.

You may remember that the second part of the ARDC’ mandatory pro bono information involves monetary contributions. This one is easy. Lawyers have more money than we have time, especially those of us with young children, aging parents, or other family needs. It is also a nice reminder (thank you, ARDC), for those of us who haven’t yet given to legal aid at the end of the year, to do so. My organization benefits from random (unsolicited) donations at this time of year, thanks to this ARDC question. (BTW, obligated to include a solicitation to donate to ILAO.)

Unfortunately, the first ARDC question - the one about hours providing legal services to people in need - does not result in an uptick in pro bono interest or activity. Why not? A colleague of mine hypothesized that it might be the order in which the questions are asked - asking for dollars second is a way to rationalize the zero hours entered in the first. See the first chapter of Freakonomics.

Recently, I heard someone say, “If the devil can’t make you bad, they’ll make you busy.” I can’t add extra hours to the day, but I can make better use of the ones I have. I can prioritize my service to others as something that is important - even critical - to my professional development and well-being, to my role as a citizen and a community member, and to my children’s futures. If this strikes a chord, then join me in a New Year’s Resolution for 2018.

Here’s the deal:

More than a year ago, ILAO started a pro bono program called Free Legal Answers, generously funded by the Illinois Bar Foundation. In terms of pro bono, it doesn’t get much easier. It is anonymous, asynchronous, limited scope, and can be completed from any internet connected device. It is my New Year’s Resolution to do pro bono through this program. I resolve to make time to spend at least 2 hours per month answering the civil legal questions of lower-income people in Illinois. So when I do my ARDC reporting next year, I will enter a “24” in the hour's column, instead of a “0”.

Want to join me? Register now.

Want more info? Visit bit.ly/ILAOvolunteer.

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