If you haven’t done any paralegal pro bono work, you could be missing out.
Paralegal pro bono work can reap many benefits for your paralegal career as it opens the door to unique experiences, allows you to be a part of something bigger than yourself, and lets you gain new skills and exposure to more cases.
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Have you ever been inside a prison? I have. And let me tell you, they are just as scary and intimidating as they look in the movies. No, I wasn’t as an inmate! I was working on a pro bono case.
A Unique Opportunity
I’m going back to the days when I was a litigation paralegal. I’d just come off a big antitrust case that had lasted for many years, and in that case, it wasn’t uncommon to have one of the many defendants produce 5,000 boxes of documents. Every few weeks. Literally. It was crazy. I remember spending weeks up in north Georgia in a warehouse with traffic lights so that the semis didn’t run you over if you were crossing INSIDE the warehouse.
The case was over, and the partner in charge of that case was also in charge of the firm’s entire litigation department. He called me into his office and said there was a partner in the DC office who has requested help from a paralegal with experience working in very large document-intensive cases.
That’s me! Sign me up. Back then, it was like a badge of honor among us paralegals. Hey, how many boxes were in that production…450! Wow, mine last week was 1,500 boxes! Someone else says I’ve got one starting next week with 4,000 boxes. If you’re reading this and you were a litigation paralegal in the 90s before eDiscovery became mainstream, you know what I’m talking about.
The partner tells me that the DC partner was the head of the firm’s pro bono department, and I’d be the lead litigation paralegal on a case involving a civil rights violation in Alabama prisons.
But here was the catch…all of the documents that were being produced by the state’s prison system weren’t in some admin building in Birmingham. They were all inside these file rooms inside their various state prison locations throughout the state. And I would be in charge of reviewing them and identifying what we wanted to get copies of.
Sign me up! Then he tells me it’s not a female prison; it’s a male prison and to not screw it up because this was an important case for the firm – just because it’s pro bono, don’t cut any corners. Do the same great job you did for me on this 250 million-dollar case we just settled. No pressure.
Fast forward a week and some phone conferences with our co-counsel at the legal aid organization that brought us the case, and we’re driving to Montgomery, Alabama, for the first leg of what I was calling my tour of Alabama state prisons. Lucky for me, this first visit had one of the legal aid attorneys with me because she had some experience with this kind of stuff, and she prepped me a little on what to expect.
What she didn’t prep me for is how, when you’re entering any particular block in prison, say from another block or from an external door, there are two sets of bars. They open one and close it behind you, and they don’t open the next one until they get the signal from the guard on the floor that it’s okay to open that one. Makes sense if you think about it. If you were someone bad coming in, or someone bad wanting to get out, you’re stuck in this 6 x 6 area.
So we go through the first round of that when we enter, and after we’ve been approved to go inside. Keep in mind we’re not going inside to the visiting room. We’re inside the prison where all of the prisoners are.
Then we get to the second cage area, and there were a few prisoners in there getting medicine. I’m thinking we’re going to wait outside that area until they were out, but nope, the guard who’s with us signals to open the bars, and we walk in. Then they close behind us. Now, I don’t know if the guard got distracted or if it was my nerves, but I’m in this caged area for what feels like an eternity, and inside my head, I’m literally screaming, “Guard, give them the signal! Open the gate! Get me out of here!”
Right about now, you might be saying to yourself, “Ann, you’re not really making a great case for why I want to do pro bono work.” Stick with me.
Because here’s what I got out of that work, which by the way, if you look it up, it’s not the ACLU lawsuit that came later. This was earlier in 2002. It was the Leatherwood case that settled out of court, and then I think because things didn’t change much, it brought about the ACLU case and later a Department of Justice investigation.
Benefits of Paralegal Pro Bono Work
Here are some of the benefits I gained from doing paralegal pro bono work and why you might want to consider it too.
- You’ll get exposure to cases or other types of work that will broaden your knowledge. Before that pro bono case, I’d only ever worked on complex commercial litigation cases like antitrust, securities, and construction litigation that involved billion-dollar skyrise projects.
- You get the opportunity to meet people you might not otherwise meet. There were the attorneys and paralegals working for that outside organization, the attorneys in other offices who were part of the pro bono committee, the prison guards in Alabama…which, by the way, as I’m in each of these prisons for 8 hours a day, sometimes for two to three weeks I’d be going in there every day as I would go into an office. A guard had to be with me at all times. He’d sit at the doorway of the file room, and he’d walk me to the restroom, and have to walk me out at night. And I remember one of them in particular who seemed very irritated initially at me that he was put on this guard duty. A few days in, he’s telling me stories about his daughter’s horse show the weekend before and all kinds of things. So I could add that to my resume after that experience “Well-versed in developing a good rapport with prison guards.”
- If you work at a firm like I did that truly valued pro bono time, you get credit for that time as billable time. That firm had an entire pro bono department where those attorneys only worked on pro bono cases. They actually had this annual award named after a founding partner who had started the pro bono committee. This was not just a “let’s try to give back to the community and show up occasionally for legal aid Saturdays.” This was a full-blown department with a budget and a mission.
- It just feels good to use your paralegal skills on something that is truly impacting lives in a positive way. If you work at a big defense firm like I did (or really any size firm), it can be challenging sometimes from that perspective. At least for me, it was. Not all the time. But there were definitely sometimes when I’d say to myself, “I wish I got the fulfillment that like a teacher or a nurse gets out of doing their work,” because I only ever worked on cases where we represented multi-million or multi-billion-dollar companies trying to protect their corporate profits. So, working on those pro bono cases helped with that.
- The new skills and experience are priceless. They let me take charge in a way that was at a much higher level than your typical civil litigation case. Now, I get that part of the reason was that the non-profit we were partnered with was understaffed, and the partners inside the law firm were already stretched thin, but I didn’t care about the reason. The result was that I got some great experience. And I learned a lot about an area of law that I had never been exposed to, and never would have been exposed to, without that pro bono opportunity.
Open the Door For Paralegal Pro Bono Work Opportunities
If I’ve convinced you that pro bono opportunities are good for your paralegal career, here are a few actions to take to gain these opportunities in your own career.
- Find out if your firm has a pro bono committee or program. Maybe you’ve never heard about it because they typically focus on attorney pro bono hours. You won’t know until you ask. For all you know, if you’re a litigation paralegal, there could be a partner in the corporate practice group who could use some help on a pro bono project they signed up for.
- If your firm doesn’t have any pro bono opportunities, check with your local paralegal association. Even if you’re not a member of that local paralegal association, they can tell you about potential pro bono opportunities in your area, or they can connect you with local organizations directly.
- Check with your local legal aid society or maybe your local innocence project. If that doesn’t interest you, maybe volunteer for the court’s guardian ad litem program. I know several paralegals who do that and find it very rewarding or maybe think outside the box even more. If you’re an animal lover, does your local shelter need help to keep up with their corporate filings? Does your local women’s shelter need help with some real estate transactions?
- If you do this, choose an area outside your comfort zone. If you’re a litigation paralegal working in commercial litigation or business litigation, find something in family law or constitutional law, or even something outside litigation entirely. You will learn so much! I remember being on a conference call with this paralegal working at this non-profit who could rattle off the constitutional case law and procedures, and I was so impressed. I knew none of that!
- If you know of some interesting pro bono opportunities, drop a comment below and tell others about them. Share your ideas!
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