By Margaret C. Benson
Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation
By now everyone knows that pro bono is an abbreviated version of a Latin phrase that means "for the public good." Most attorneys also know that pro bono work offers plenty of benefits to them individually, and to the legal profession as a whole.
But what about the clients? Does pro bono work really benefit the multitude of low- income people for whom thousands upon thousands of pro bono hours are expended annually?
In other words, how do you know that you are actually doing good?
This is not a random question. Organizations that fund social service programs, which include legal aid and pro bono programs, often use "outcome measures" as a way to decide which programs have earned the right to continued funding.
The object is to ensure that money is being spent wisely by measuring the objective and specific outcomes a program has identified for its use of funds. For instance, a food pantry can decide that its measure will be to feed X number of individuals annually, while a program that serves the homeless can say that it will provide job training to X number of people and that X number actually found work.
What is an appropriate measure for legal aid and pro bono programs? Is it that X number of clients win their cases? Probably not. If that were the measure, then client screening would have to be heartlessly strict, forcing programs to accept only clients guaranteed a win in court.
That neither comports with the ideals of our legal system, nor does any sensible attorney hold to that standard. Though lawyers like to win, we all know that even the best attorneys lose from time to time. In fact, losing can bring about legal reforms by spurring corrective legislation or by generating an appeal that overturns an outdated decision. Losing is an essential and necessary part of a lawyer's professional life
In addition, what, exactly, constitutes a win for a client?
Does it always mean saving the house in a foreclosure?
Sometimes the client knows that she can no longer afford to maintain a big, energy- guzzling home but wants to get out with some equity. Sometimes a client just wants to have a few months to find another place or hopes to postpone a move until the summer. In that case, additional time constitutes a win, even though the home is ultimately foreclosed.
What about divorce cases? When is there ever a definitive win? The best divorce cases are negotiated settlements where everyone ends up with a little more and a little less than they wanted.
Experienced divorce attorneys learn to live with the fact that their clients are never really satisfied at the conclusion of their cases. It's just a fact.
Don't forget that clients get to drive the litigation bus.
How can winning a case be an accurate measure when clients are in charge of their cases?
Attorneys are very familiar with clients who sabotaged excellent cases by doing dumb things like turning down an excellent settlement offer in favor of losing at trial. Some clients gamble and throw craps.
That is their right. But does that mean the value of the attorney's pro bono services is negligible?
Ethical rules make it crystal-clear that an attorney's job is to advise and counsel and then let the client make the decision. An attorney's counsel is a valuable commodity that, absent pro bono, most low-income people cannot access.
Impact litigation often takes years, sometimes decades to resolve.
Though an attorney who contributes 50 hours in year three of a 15-year lawsuit may not feel that his contribution was worthwhile, consider it comparable to the tablespoon of yeast in a loaf of delicious bread. It may be small, but without it, all you'd have is some flat, gooey dough.
So how do we measure the bono part of pro bono?
How do you, the volunteer attorney, know if the time and sweat you poured into your case actually did good?
That question is a no-brainer when your work changes your client's life for the better. Other times it's harder to tell, but consider the fact that, thanks to you, your client did not face the legal system alone. Your client had an attorney.
Advice and counsel?
Expert assistance preparing legal documents?
Yes, yes and yes.
All of these actions benefit clients. As with everything else in our profession, just like in our world, there is no one simple answer and no one simple measure.
The gauge of doing good depends on doing what is necessary. So do what you can and rest assured that when you donate your time, your skill and your effort to helping low- income clients, or you contribute money to an organization that helps low-income people, you are doing pro bono and you are doing good.