How to assess whether a firm really values pro bono
Published Tuesday 5/22/2012 9:00:00 AM
Last updated Wednesday 9/26/2012 2:14:57 PM
Caroline Smith (pictured to the left) didn’t have to think too hard about what firm to article at once she had looked into pro bono opportunities.
Pro Bono work is important to Smith, a recent graduate of the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan and a former director of her school’s Pro Bono Students Canada chapter. So she wanted to make sure that the law firm she chose would support this activity, not only for articling students, but also for associates and partners.
“I don’t think there are any firms that would tell you not to do pro bono, but there’s a lot that might not be very helpful when you’re doing it. So I asked all the firms I was interviewing with what their pro bono policies were,” she says.
And she found that there were, indeed, huge differences in the level of priority that various firms gave to voluntary public interest work. When she asked about the pro bono policy at one large law firm, she was told that they didn’t really have one, though they did organize some fundraisers. “They seemed a little bit uncomfortable,” says Smith, who came to the conclusion that “they would probably let you do pro bono, but probably didn’t have a good system set up for conflicts checks and wouldn’t consider pro bono to be a good thing when evaluating your performance.”
On the other hand, at the Calgary office of Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP where she will soon be articling, Smith was invited to meet with the chair of the Pro Bono committee and told that up to 200 hours of pro bono work each year would be considered as billable hours for the purpose of promotion and possible future partnership.
If you want to do pro bono work, be sure to ask about it when you go for interviews, then probe and assess the answers you get to figure out which firms are really serious about it and will likely provide you with worthwhile opportunities, Smith says.
However, she warns, you may not want to ask too many questions. “You probably don’t want to make your whole interview about pro bono because that’s not a large part of what you’ll be doing at the firm. These firms are out there to make money and you’re there not just to do work for free, but to do work for clients, so they might be concerned if you’re asking more than a couple of questions about pro bono,” she says.
Gail Wong, Director, Student Programs (Ontario Region) at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, says she certainly encourages students to ask questions about the firm’s pro bono opportunities, though it is important to acknowledge that pro bono work is not a law firm’s core business. “Obviously the bread and butter of the firm is billable work. But – that said – we recognize that students and associates have a real desire to participate in pro bono work and we actually think it’s really important for skills development. We’re always seeking additional opportunities for our students to learn practice skills and client management skills, and often smaller pro bono work can give them those opportunities,” she says.
She advises students to ask all the questions they need to ask about pro bono work, “so long as they can convey that they understand that law firms are businesses and doing billable work for clients is the main focus.”
But your investigation of a firm’s pro bono policies and practices can begin long before you go in for an interview, says Wong. To begin with, she encourages students to check out law firm web sites – not only to see what they say, but also what they don’t say. The student portions of firm web sites provide information that the firms want to communicate to students about what is important to them, what kind of work they do and what their culture is like. “So, if there is no reference to pro bono activities, it’s something to consider,” she says.
Wong also encourages students to ask questions about pro bono at law school liaison events, such as career fairs or panel discussions. Best of all, talk to students who are already working at the firm, she advises.
So what do you need to ask or find out about law firm’s pro bono programs? Tracy Wachmann, Public Interest Coordinator, Career Services, at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law, suggests that you start by determining whether or not the firm has a formal policy and, if so, what it is. However, she points out that the absence of such a policy does not necessarily mean the firm has no interest in pro bono. “Some smaller firms may actively encourage and support pro bono, but due to the small number of lawyers, have not yet found the need to change their informal or case-by-case approach to a formal policy,” she says.
You should find out whether the firm tracks the time its lawyers spends on pro bono work, Wachmann says, observing that this is just a bare minimum indicator of the firm’s commitment to pro bono. “It’s a gauge of whether they take it seriously or whether it’s just lip service,” she says.
Wachmann also advises students to investigate the maximum and minimum pro bono hours you will be expected or permitted to do, and whether you will be given credit for these hours in considering year-end targets, bonuses and promotions. Another key question is whether the firm has a pro bono committee or a full-time person coordinating the pro bono program.
Students may also want to find out how pro bono cases are brought into the firm, Wachmann says. “Is there a process by which junior associates can obtain approval to bring in their own pro bono cases and projects? Are you working on senior partner’s favourite cause or can you bring your own files?”
“Students should kick the tires before accepting an offer if pro bono work is important to them,” Wachmann says.
“You need to ask,” says Smith, because “if a firm doesn’t share your values, you’re not going to be happy there.”