’Tis Better to Give Than to Receive

It wasn’t until my kids were probably two or three that I fully understood on some sort of base level that it truly is better to give than to receive. These days with a 12-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, Christmas is really mostly for me (outside of church) about the joy of seeing them and my wife have a great Christmas. As we all get ready to celebrate the holidays and are planning what charitable gifts we might give prior to year end, it occurred to me that the same spirit of giving can and should be easily applied to pro bono efforts.

What better time of the year could there be than now to thoughtfully consider giving back to those who are less fortunate with your time, talent and treasure? I have often lauded programs like Habitat for Humanity for the great work that that they do. The magic of programs like Habitat for Humanity is that anyone can swing a hammer or push a paint brush. However, there are many things that only a lawyer can do to make a difference in the lives of others. If we don’t step up, then who? If not now, then when?

When preaching the gospel of pro bono work, I often hear a few common objections or concerns. For example:
I don’t have time right now, but I will do this when I’m not as busy. If you say those words, then be honest and admit that there will never be a time when you are not as busy. Pro bono work is an ethical obligation, but it is also something that ought to be a professional priority. It will enrich your life and the lives of those you serve. It will remind you why you went to law school in the first place. So don’t wait until that mythical time when you are not busy. That day will never come, and you won’t really do any pro bono work. Instead, make it a priority but manage it. Take on just one pro bono matter at a time until you feel more comfortable managing more. Don’t wait to give back.

I don’t know the first thing about the types of problems pro bono clients are likely to have. That is probably true. However, most of their problems aren’t that complicated. You are smart enough to figure it out. If it is something more complicated, your legal services entity will have someone on staff who probably has dealt with that issue before. If not, I promise that another attorney in your community has; I have not met one yet who was unwilling to share knowledge and forms to help another attorney do pro bono.

The pro bono clients will pester me to death. Sometimes they do. Because they are not getting a bill every time that they call you, you might find that they call you more often than your paying clients. This is an easy problem to fix. First, you need to set ground rules on the front end of the representation. Most of the pro bono clients with whom I have worked have respected ground rules on communication if I set them on the front end.

I am a business attorney, what do I know about litigation. First, the ethical requirement isn’t just for attorneys who have a trial or litigation practice. It applies to all of us equally. If you don’t regularly practice in any court, I understand that it can be a little daunting to walk into court that first time. Ask your legal services entity if they will help pair you with a trial attorney to tag team on a case. If you take the same type of case and go to court a few times with someone who has been there before, you will find that more often than not you too can help even on matters that involve court. Another option is to get trained in things like social security disability appeals, TennCare eligibility hearings, uncontested divorces or adoptions, and then just take those types of cases.

As a last resort, if you just will not take pro bono assignments or feel like you can’t for whatever reason, then you really should strongly consider making a significant financial donation to your local legal services entity. Your money can help hire a full-time attorney to do pro bono work. With shrinking federal budgets and tough times all around, the need for money is as great now as it has ever been. So if you are going to give, every amount helps, but consider making it really count with a significant donation.

This holiday season as you think about the saying, “’Tis better to give than to receive,” remember to think about pro bono. Here’s to keeping that spirit and pro bono top of mind all year long.


Danny Van Horn TBA President DANNY VAN HORN is a partner with Butler, Snow, O'Mara, Stevens and Cannada PLLC in Memphis.