Pro bono work is important. But, maybe keeping your practice afloat while following your conscience to increase your pro bono work is something you struggle with, too. Thinking outside the box of pro bono can help you figure out what YOU can do.

Fair warning: I’ve spun my wheels quite a bit trying to come up with a glorious and eloquent way of describing my pro bono philosophy and gotten  stuck repeatedly. This is because the explanation of why pro bono lawyering is so important is really simple and boring: many people can’t afford to pay a lawyer. We know this. There are those out there with the resources to do it. There are those who can borrow money from family and friends. But for a lot of families, the thousands of dollars to pay an attorney will come out of rent money, grocery money, or money for things like clothes or school supplies. And for some families, the money simply is not there.

I am not an idiot. I know that all immigration lawyers in their own practices have very serious metrics of what they can give and it does not necessarily depend on how much compassion they have for their clients. I cannot pretend to know what it is like to be a solo-practitioner trying to make ends meet or someone in charge of making payroll at a sprawling firm. Even though I know there is probably the occasional exception, I hope it is not naive to say that most of the immigration lawyers I’ve met, resources permitting, would do as much as they possibly could pro bono, but it has to be within the realm what is possible while they maintain their practice and pay their bills. I rarely meet people with limited compassion for pro bono work, but more often meet lawyers with limited hours, who need to make sure their assistants get paid, keep the office doors open, protect their own mental health, and spend time with their families.

None of that changes that fact that paying a good lawyer is cost prohibitive for too many immigrant families. So the question we ask at our office is: knowing that the amount of time we have to give away is limited, how can we plan our pro bono activities to really maximize their impact on the community?

I can’t forget the first time I did pro bono service as an immigration lawyer. I drove out to a rural area about 30 minutes from where I live to give legal advice at a community center. There were really good donuts and plenty of coffee, which is generally enough to get me to show up anywhere. I was told to spend 15-20 minutes with each client, answer their questions, and inform them about resources to help them.  Any immigration lawyer can predict what happened: people had complicated questions which I answered well, but they needed much more than 15 minutes with a volunteer, they needed real accompaniment, which for me is another word for lawyering. Many people I talked to left frustrated because all they learned was how complicated their cases were and still did not have affordable counsel. I, however, received a certificate of merit from the New Mexico Supreme Court. It bugged me that my bar encourages me towards ineffective models of service. Doing work that is “better than nothing” cannot be the standard we hold ourselves to.

That example is simply to illustrate that if we can’t do more pro-bono work, then we clearly have to do better pro bono work. And better pro bono work takes radical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. The CARA Family Detention Project is an incredible example of this. Hundreds of lawyers and law students assist with the project in Dilley. If each of those people took one case start to finish, hundreds of people might get help with a lot of effort and cost to the individual attorney, but the program is designed so that a huge team of lawyers working together for limited spans of time can help get thousands of women and children released every year because it is smart, creative, and collaborative.

Small and effective projects can happen in your home community as well. We know that we have limited time and resources, but by asking the following questions, we can maximize our impact:

  1. What is the goal for the clients? The goal cannot be providing easy pro bono service opportunities for lawyers. The project must aim for a particular outcome for the clients.
  2. What are the barriers to good service? Are there geographic barriers? Language barriers? Can the goal be achieved in one event or do multiple events need to be planned? Perhaps the service needs to be ongoing? What will prevent the clients from participating? Asking these questions will help define where creativity is needed in planning.
  3. Who are the important players? Do only lawyers have to participate? Often we can structure well-planned services so that non-lawyer volunteers are doing amazingly valuable work, collecting information and the like, reducing the amount of actual lawyering that needs to be done.
  4. How will we evaluate success? Another way of asking this is: what impact will it have? This evaluation connects directly to the goal and helps with further planning, understanding barriers, and re-adjusting of goals.

Spending time at the start, planning and thinking outside the box to determine what could work best to magnify the resources you have on hand can make all the difference. Planning is work. But creating something effective that works for everyone: the client, the lawyer, and community partners if it is done right. And it will be much better than nothing!


*** AILA Members looking for more information about pro bono opportunities may find AILA’s pro bono page on helpful. The Immigration Justice Campaign also offers ways for immigration and non-immigration lawyers to work together and assist detained asylum seekers. ***