Can you afford to do good?

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Published on 7/27/09

The Massachusetts State Bar Association recently honored the 2009 winners of its annual "Access to Justice Awards" for pro bono service. Press reports showed that the lawyers and firms that were recognized provided substantial legal assistance to disadvantaged children, public housing residents, juvenile offenders imprisoned without chance of parole and many more - all of whom received quality counsel that they otherwise could not have afforded. The president of the bar called such work "the unseen sacrifices of our noble profession," and they are especially heartening at a time of great economic stress.

"The Business of Law" must be combined with sensitivity to the needs of the human condition. Yet many lawyers who recognize the benefit of pro bono work are otherwise uncertain about how and whether they can make the time and financial commitment to do it.

The simple fact is that no lawyer can be expected to fulfill a broader social purpose of serving the public unless that lawyer's practice generates the profitability that allows for the devotion the time to pro bono work. If the client billings are not sufficient to support pro bono, non-billable time, the commitment to serving the public will be tenuous at best. For a solo practice or a mega-firm, financial performance is the foundation that supports making a meaningful pro bono effort.

There is another dimension to the resources necessary for pro bono undertakings: time. Having six billable hours a day seems adequate, yet times five days times 50 weeks amounts to only 1,500 hours per year - well below what most firms target. Raise the target to eight hours of billable time a day and you get 2,000 hours a year, which is closer to what most firms expect. Yet how can lawyers get that many billable hours per day and do pro bono work, as well as business development and continuing education, all while meeting personal and family responsibilities?

The only real way to deal with this conundrum is to take a deep breath and assess whether you truly have the time and financial resources for pro bono work. Let's say you want to prioritize your time but don't know where to begin. Start by listing all the types of matters with which you help clients. Sort them by what you enjoy doing most or which offers the most desirable work. By thinking through what you do piece by piece, you will be less overwhelmed by, and fearful about, the totality of it.

The same process applies to understanding your financial position. Look at how much money you have coming in today compared to six months or a year ago. Make a list of which clients you can reasonably expect to pay you in the next four weeks, or the next eight weeks. Make another list of where your money is going: rent, salaries, equipment and so on. You'll end up with a documented cash flow analysis. If there is cause for concern, your analysis will show it. If not, it gives you more peace of mind to undertake pro bono matters.

Should your practice allow you the financial and time resources that pro bono requires, be assured that the need is there - and so, ultimately, is professional satisfaction.

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