Do all or part of the following descriptions apply to you?
- You are a recent law school graduate and bar admittee, but you do not have a job offer from a private law firm, a government agency, a non-profit law association or other legal employer.
- You realize that, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer’s stock in trade consists of experience, as well as time and advice – but your own experience is severely limited, and you have no one else’s experience to lean on.
- You are willing to take the leap of professional faith involved in “hanging out a shingle,” but are unsure about what areas of practice might be best suited to your skills and interests.
Far too often, new attorneys take that leap into a total void, taking on any clients and client matters just to make a living. In the process, they take on clients with frivolous cases who should be sent packing, running the risk of a malpractice suit or bar discipline before they have had a chance to build a solid, sellable reputation.
But there is an alternative to this approach, and I am grateful that I made good use of this alternative early in my career. My first case, shortly after I was admitted to the Maryland bar, was a referral from Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Service to handle an uncontested divorce. It ended up being the first of many such referrals, continuing into the present.
You might question the value of practicing law for free for a beginner attorney with an empty bank account. In fact, there are several ways in which taking referrals from an organization such as MVLS is valuable.
First, it provides you with experience, with mentor attorneys available to provide guidance and advice in cases that involve complex or unusual issues. After a short time, you will find that you have enough experience that you can sell to paying clients. If you do your job well, you will also find that you have a lawyer’s best friend for marketing purposes: referrals. Together, the experience and referrals you gain will go a long way toward solving your bank account problem.
Second, MVLS and similar organizations, such as the Community Law Center and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, provide a wide array of clients and legal issues that allow a beginning attorney to explore an equally wide array of practice areas. This is an opportunity to find one or two that closely align with your individual abilities and interests. It can also be a way of transitioning from a practice area you wish to leave to one that may be more personally and financially satisfying.
Finally, all referrals are not created equal, when it comes to their immediate financial potential. Often, there are opportunities to take on “low-bono” cases, where the organization will pay for a portion of the attorney’s time spent in working with the client. MVLS, for example, does this for divorce cases through its “Judicare” program. And sometimes, even a referral on a volunteer basis can turn into a paying client for another related matter.
Of course, pro bono practice has the same challenges as paid practice. Sometimes, the willingness to extend one’s services on a charitable basis can lead to conflicts of interest for the donating practitioner. Beware allowing your desire to help to cloud your assessment of what may be a frivolous matter. Further, beware of the client who insists that he or she knows exactly how his or her problem should be handled. In those instances, the most charitable act an attorney can perform is the same one that should be performed for a paying client: refuse the client and/or the case.
Even when you will not be receiving a reasonable fee for your services, you must continue to maintain the same professional handling of a pro bono matter as if it is paid. If you are inclined to devote less attention to pro bono referrals, accepting pro bono cases is not for you; Bar Counsel will not care what you were paid if you handled a matter with less than professional diligence or competence.
If, however, you are a newly-minted attorney, and you are prepared to surmount those challenges with a willingness and ability to defer some degree of financial reward, you may find yourself able to “do well by doing good” – and, in the process, perform a valuable service for both your profession and the public.
Stephen R. Rourke is a partner in Rourke & Rosenberg, LLC, an immigration law firm in Pikesville, Maryland. In addition to immigration, Mr. Rourke practices family, business, non-profit and entertainment law.