What Gives? 21 ways lawyers can give back — every day
by Merrilyn Astin Tarlton
Originally published in Law Practice, Volume 31, No. 6, September 2006. © 2006 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission. Subscribe online to Law Practice at http://www.abanet.org/lpm/magazine/mag_subscribe.shtml.
The legal profession sure gets its share of shin-kicking. We all know about the popular characterization of lawyers as heartless money-grubbers. The jokes portraying the profession as some special breed of bottom-feeding predator. The national media devoting endless ink to the crass and selfish deeds of lawyers far and wide. It doesn’t feel good, does it? Does it make you think glumly about your career choice? Fear not. Just as they always have, lawyers are giving back to their communities. Just as they always will, lawyers see ways to change the world for good and are acting to make it so. And just as they said they would, the partners in your own firm are modeling volunteerism and public service regularly.
There’s nothing new about the criticism of lawyers. At the same time, there’s nothing new about the service role that lawyers play in the world. Every day thousands of lawyers help people, through actions large and little, public and imperceptible.
There’s a long tradition of service for you to celebrate — and for you to participate in. Take a quick tour through this list of 21 ways that you can give. Check off the ones that already are part of your life. Take a few new ones and act on them. Add your own ideas to the list. Pass it on to younger lawyers as a reminder of the profession’s sacred pledge. Use it as the agenda for your next partner meeting.
Start now. It feels good to do good.
1. Embrace pro bono. In 1984, when I first began to work with lawyers, I took a young lawyer friend to lunch and asked him to translate some terms of art for me: "due process," "sub rosa," "tabula rasa" and "pro bono publico." The first three were a slam-dunk. But he hadn’t a clue about the last term. Don’t be that young lawyer. Pro bono legal work is the chief framework of any lawyer’s life: "The responsibility to ensure access to justice for all by meeting not only the legal needs of those who can afford a lawyer but also the legal needs of those individuals and communities that cannot."
2. Volunteer. Plant a tree. Deliver meals to the homebound. Advocate for patients’ rights. Hand out resource information to the indigent. Build a playground. Find an issue you care deeply about and give your time and money to it.
3. Serve on a board. Every organization values a board member with a legal perspective. Your reliable knowledge of legal and business issues, as well as your time and energy, can help a fledgling or established organization move smartly — and safely — ahead. (The fact that this is also a great way to make community connections is good, but beside the larger point.)
4. Mentor. The best and perhaps only way to repay those kind and wise lawyers who helped you when you were a novice is to do the same for young lawyers in your firm. How many times have you bemoaned all the things they don’t teach young lawyers anymore? Maybe it’s up to you. Find a young lawyer or two who will benefit from some perspective and coaching, and take them under your wing. If you really want to see what it’s like to make a difference, hang in there with them for more than a year or two.
5. Be a safe resource. Make it your business to keep track of public and private resources that offer reliable and current legal information and support in your area of practice. Offer this information freely to those who need it.
6. Help a client get ahead. Yes, it is your job — the one they pay you for — to help your clients with their legal problems. But have you considered that they are people with non-legal needs, too? Offer a connection for a client’s college-bound teen. Suggest a new market for her business. Make him feel welcome with an invitation to join a luncheon club. Suggest your clients’ services to those you know who might use them.
7. Educate the public. There are some spectacular ways for you to disseminate information. Check out the Colorado Divorce Handbook at www.harhai.com or the immigration resources at www.visalaw.com for stellar examples of ways lawyers are using the Internet to provide information to folks where and when they need it. But it doesn’t have to be electronic. Print a simple legal frequently-asked-questions sheet for potential clients. Offer a "how to know when it’s time to call your lawyer" card. Speak on helpful topics before groups large and small.
8. Organize. Do you know a neighborhood group that’s anxious about encroaching development? Have your local school’s parent-teacher organization leaders told you there are safety concerns with the school buses? Help these people get organized to take action and make something happen. Isn’t that what you’re best at?
9. Express your caring. You do care about the outcome of your client’s matter, don’t you? And beyond that, you care about the impact of the legal events on your client’s business and family, right? Make sure your clients know it! Don’t assume they can read your mind, or your heart.
10. Get involved. Don’t allow your billable-hours mentality to prevent you from raising your hand. It may be something as simple as coaching a T-ball team — but it will be important to those you coach, it will set an example for your colleagues and, most of all, you’ll have a ball.
11. Help a child. If you’ve looked into pro bono programs, you know that the greatest ongoing need is for lawyers trained and willing to help indigent families with custody and abuse situations. It doesn’t take much to change a child’s life forever.
12. Teach a class. Yes, you could teach a CLE course. Bar associations are always looking for expert instructors. But you might visit your local high school or junior college to teach a session on conflict resolution. Or maybe a group of seniors in your community is looking for an introduction to the basics of living wills.
13. Write a book. At this point in your career, you’ve learned a lot, haven’t you? Perhaps your family law practice has taught you how to avoid the pitfalls that the court system presents for juveniles. Maybe you and a social worker colleague are sharing notes about the relationship between education and criminal behavior. You might have seen too many gifted entrepreneurs bite the dust owing to a lack of sophistication about the basic legal requirements for new businesses. Well, write the book. (Or, given your time commitments, maybe it’s the booklet.)
14. Adopt a law student. Remember how lost you sometimes felt in law school? Did you think you’d ever find a paying job as a lawyer? Many practitioners are finding ways to reach beyond the confines of their own firms to guide young lawyers’ careers. Through organized programs to mentor students of diversity or individual contacts made via family or friends, you can enjoy introducing a work-in-progress lawyer to the culture, practice styles, social structures and business tactics of law practice in your town.
15. Tutor. There’s nothing like the look in a child’s eyes in that first magical moment when she realizes she’s reading! It doesn’t take a lot to lead a child to that moment. Just patience, kindness and the understanding gained from your own struggles with learning. Haven’t we all had a tough time "getting it" once in a while? Maybe you can find a way to pass on your mastery of differential equations to a struggling high-schooler.
16. Run for office. It’s true. Politics is probably the way that United States lawyers got their bad image in the first place. (Watergate trials, anyone?) Maybe it’s time someone like you demonstrated how it’s really done: with scruples, integrity and a sense of what needs to happen to put things right. It doesn’t have to be big. How about the school board?
17. Launch a not-for-profit. If there’s a social cause that’s got you burning but you’ve found no organization that focuses on it, then start your own organization. Recruit like-minded friends and colleagues to join in.
18. Contribute. It’s simple. Just write a check to a deserving charity. Get your partners to write checks, too. In fact, you could consider arranging for the firm to flat-out adopt a charity that you can all get behind.
19. Say thank you. Of course it’s a business deal between you and your client. But even your local barista smiles and says, "Thanks a latte!" when your morning coffee transaction concludes. Don’t hesitate to pipe up and thank your clients and colleagues for their business and their loyalty. After all, don’t you expect the same from them?
20. Resolve conflict. Put heavy emphasis on the word "resolve." Volunteer your mediation and facilitation skills to community organizations. Take pride in stepping forward to guide neighborhood, church and school groups from conflict to collaboration. Demonstrate the steps to agreement.
21. Go on, change the world! And keep in mind that the small steps can prove as important as the big ones. There’s a job for everyone who is willing to pitch in. Your gifts to the world need not be on a grand scale. As French author Paul Carvel said, "He who wants to change the world should already begin by cleaning the dishes."
Merrilyn Astin Tarlton (email@example.com) is Chief Marketing Officer for Denver law firm Jacobs Chase, President of the College of Law Practice Management and Editor-in-Chief of Law Practice magazine.