Public Service Voices
Serving the Pro Bono Client
By Lori Salzarulo
For those of us who work in private firms, the pro bono work we do can provide a level of satisfaction unmatched by the work we do for other clients. We generally get to choose our pro bono clients and we generally choose those clients because of a personal interest in promoting their own good works. This has certainly been my own experience over the last 19 years with Garvey Schubert Barer. With great personal satisfaction, I have participated in two class action lawsuits that resulted in significant victories, one for homeless children and the other for indigent defendants, and have represented a number of nonprofit organizations involved in a wide range of charitable works, such as providing housing and job training opportunities to homeless and low income persons, educating women about domestic violence, and alleviating the causes and effects of forced migration in countries besieged by internal strife.
Of course, the work that we do for our pro bono clients should never be primarily about us, about feeling good about our own efforts. Knowing that our work can help a homeless person obtain housing, or a refugee obtain medical care, or an indigent defendant receive effective assistance of counsel, or a child get special education services certainly can bring a sense of pride and satisfaction. But we must not do pro bono work solely for the vicarious pleasure of promoting charitable causes. Although that may be a natural consequence of the work we do, and a laudable one at that, our primary consideration should always be, as with every client, how to best serve the client’s interests. There is no secret to how this is done. What we bring to the equation, what our clients are relying on, without which they would not be able to do their own good works, is our professional expertise.
Unfortunately, however, there is sometimes a perception among pro bono clients that they are not entitled to the same level of service as paying clients. Not long ago, I received a card from one of my pro bono clients thanking me for my assistance in helping his organization merge with another nonprofit organization. Thank you letters from pro bono clients are not uncommon. They are often more ready to share their appreciation for the work we do. But this letter struck a particularly resonant chord. The client conveyed his appreciation not only for the smooth transition of people, projects, contractual rights and tangible objects from one organization to another but also for the attention he received along the way. As he put it, he never got the impression that his organization was any less important than a “regular paying client.”
The sentiment expressed by this client is not unique. Clients who do not pay for our services may be more willing to overlook the delayed return phone call or the extra time it takes to turn around a document. They may be more forgiving of a cancelled appointment or the difficulty in scheduling a site visit. But this should never be the norm. We are in a service business. As attorneys, we must constantly juggle the competing demands of all our clients. It is both a skill and an art to make each client feel as if that client is our most important client. We should never rationalize our failure to return a call or to meet a deadline on grounds that the client is not paying for our services. In addition to the professional obligations we owe our pro bono clients, each of us plays a role in how attorneys are viewed by the public. We go a long way towards promoting the legal profession as a valuable societal force when we serve the public good. We go even farther when we treat our pro bono clients with the same level of service that we provide our paying clients.
Ultimately, we have the opportunity to do good for others in all the work we do as attorneys, whether we get paid for that work or not. However, the personal satisfaction we derive from doing good is enhanced, at least for me and I suspect for quite a few others, when we remove the expectation of getting paid. In exchange, we owe it to ourselves and to our clients as well as to our colleagues in the legal profession to uphold the highest standards of care and professional skill. As the term “pro bono” implies, doing good work should always be our primary aim.