By Emily Ellis, Esq.
It’s a balancing act! These are the words most attorneys say when asked how they fit everything into their day. Every time I hear this, I envision an attorney walking a tightrope, holding a child in one hand, a briefcase in another hand, and somehow balancing a basket of laundry on their head while simultaneously appearing for a hearing via video conference. If that attorney were complying with their obligations (wink, wink), tucked in that briefcase would be a file folder for a pro bono matter or two. While there are no hard-and-fast rules on how to ensure those pro bono matters don’t send you spiraling off the tightrope, through the years—both from my own experience and witnessing my colleagues—I have gathered some tips and tricks to help “fit” pro bono into your busy practice.
First thing first: Integrate pro bono into your practice early on. It may never feel like the right time to take on a new case, and if you wait until you think you’ve struck the perfect balance between work and home life, that extra case or two will definitely throw you off. By engaging in pro bono as a new attorney, you’re teaching yourself how to make it all work from the get-go, and your practice will begin to feel empty or off-balance without a pro bono matter. Smaller matters may be the perfect place to start to get your feet wet.
This brings me to my second tip: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. You don’t need to be Evel Knievel and ride a motorcycle over a rope suspended between two hotels for your first pro bono case. Assess your current capacity, and, if your time feels limited, explore pro bono options that are “bite-sized.” Participating in the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada’s Ask-A-Lawyer (“AAL”) program or representing a client in a name change application is a great way to have a meaningful impact on the lives of those in need, while providing a clear expectation of your time commitment. We can all find a couple of hours each month, so even if you can’t work on a long-term matter given your current schedule, you can keep pro bono in your practice by taking on these finite projects. Trust me when I tell you that the incredible feeling you get after hanging up the phone and knowing you helped an AAL client navigate the confusing eviction process will stick with you and make you want to continue volunteering—and maybe even take on a larger matter.
When that urge hits, my third tip will definitely come in handy: Working on a team is key to striking that perfect balance—imagine that tightrope walker attempting the feat without support from their balancing pole! We never want to feel like we are out on that tightrope by ourselves for our billable matters, so it makes no sense to do that to ourselves in pro bono matters. Not only will the client benefit from having a team approach to their case, where associates, partners, and paralegals are engaging in strategy sessions to obtain the best outcome for the client, but also, your team will be invaluable for your stability. If your plate is full one month with deadlines, briefs, and depositions in other matters, and the declaration for your pro bono consumer protection matter needs to be finalized with the client, one of your other team members can take on those responsibilities without the case or client suffering. As an extra bonus, when you take a case from the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, you are assigned a mentor who is always available to assist in any aspect of your matter.
The last, and in my opinion, most important tip I can give is to engage in pro bono matters that are meaningful for you and align with your passions. For example, maybe helping the abused or neglected child, or the senior citizen obtain justice after being taken advantage of by a slum landlord, is something you are passionate about. If so, it will be easier to “fit” it into your busy schedule. When I am preparing an asylum applicant for their interview with USCIS, I am not burdened by it; rather, I am honored to be helping them and fueling a passion I have inside of me to make a positive impact in their life. If you find cases helping those in your community that you care about and stories that speak to you, I trust that your pro bono cases will be something that ignite you and that you long for in your daily practice—you won’t struggle with trying to “fit” them in.
About the author
Emily Ellis, Esq., shareholder at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, focuses her commercial litigation practice on business, construction defect, and real estate disputes. She also has experience in intellectual property litigation, including trademark and copyright matters. She serves as the Las Vegas chairperson of Brownstein’s firmwide Karma Committee, the firm’s pro bono partner, and chair of its pro bono committee.
About the article
This article was originally published in the Communiqué (Dec. 2023), the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association. See https://clarkcountybar.org/about/member-benefits/communique-2023/communique-december-2023/
© 2023 Clark County Bar Association (CCBA). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any portion of this issue is allowed without written permission from the publisher. Editorial policy available upon request.