Maybe you’ve heard about attorneys and pro bono work. . . . The full length version of the term is pro bono publico – which means for the public good; for the welfare of the whole. Pro bono isn’t just an American phenomenon – check out the Wikipedia entry about it here. I once worked with a marketing person who threw something into a package and called it “pro bono.” But pro bono does not mean free (the Latin word for free is gratis) and I would rather go with the approach of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder:
We are bound by a responsibility to use our unique skills and training – not just to advance cases, but to serve a cause; and to help our nation fulfill its founding promise of equal justice under law…The obligation of pro bono service must become a part of the DNA of both the legal profession and of every lawyer.
He made this statement last year at the National Pro Bono Summit on October 24, 2011. So why do many lawyers perform pro bono work? There are several good reasons including: (1) the highest poverty rate among Americans since 1993 (persons qualifying for no fee or reduced fee civil legal services); (2) ensuring access for the poor helps keep the judiciary independent; and (3) respect for the rule of law.
In Colorado, Chief Justice Michael Bender declared October as Colorado’s first annual Legal Professionalism Month. You can read more about that here. What do professionalism and pro bono have to do with each other? Lots! One of Chief Justice Bender’s four goals identified in his proclamation is to encourage the entire bar to “recognize the broad legal needs of our community and improv[e] public attitudes toward the profession through a renewed dedication to pro bono service.” The month culminates in an “Assembly of Lawyers” at the Boettcher Concert Hall, where the Colorado Supreme Court, sitting in special session, will administer the oath of admission to the newest bar admittees – pretty cool. Read more about it here.
I do the bulk of my pro bono service through Metro Volunteer Lawyers, an organization serving low-income clients in the Denver metro area that sponsors clinics, provides information to the public, and finds pro bono attorneys to represent indigent persons in need of a variety of legal services. I have done pro bono work for MVL clients in my usual practice areas of estate planning and probate but have also represented folks in family law court for MVL. MVL is presenting a CLE this week in honor of pro bono week – check it out here. Volunteering with MVL is easy and very gratifying. Click here for more info.
One last word about helping others through pro bono service. Many people don’t realize that our human brains are wired to help each other out and to feel good about it. Acts of loving kindness to assist others can benefit us in many important ways: improve physical well-being; raise self-confidence and self-esteem; encourage friendships that help your immune system; and it may help you live longer. In fact, we might be able to volunteer our way to a healthier brain – fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) show that the neurology of unselfish acts, such as making a donation, lit up the mesolimbic pathway (the limbic system is often referred to as the reptile or primitive part of our brains) that facilitates the brain’s experience of joy. I must add – as an elder law attorney – that this can be a beneficial thing for older “at risk” or isolated adults. Volunteering by elders helps them in many ways, one of which benefits cognitive function as a consequence of our lifelong neuroplasticity. Here are links for a couple very interesting studies which should be encouraging news for elders wondering about whether there are benefits to volunteering. Volunteer service is a great way to engage in your existing community and also to find a new one! If you are skeptical and want more proof, read this amazing little book, The Hidden Gifts of Helping, by Stephen G. Post (Jossey-Bass, 2011). If you are wondering about pro bono services tailored for legal problems of elders in Denver county, check out Elder Justice, a great public resource. I was happy to interview their executive director, Sharon Mohr, in honor of pro bono week. You can see the vlog (video blog) post here.