Why young lawyers should prioritise pro bono over billable hours

Why young lawyers should prioritise pro bono over billable hours

11 January 2021 By Naomi Neilson
Why young lawyers should prioritise pro bono over billable hours

Young lawyers graduating into practice this year and new students looking for portfolio-building opportunities should prioritise volunteering and pro bono work.

There is no better opportunity to feel like a real, useful part of the profession than doing the critical, unpaid work to help those in need. Not only does it look great on a resume, it is also an opportunity for young lawyers to get a feel for significant legal work, expand on their passions in the law and shape a better public perception of the profession.


According to Charles Abourezk, American Bar Association (ABA) contributor and Chief Justice of Rosebud Sioux Tribes Supreme Court, pro bono work will round out all future lawyers and will inevitably become valuable in their careers as they start major cases.

“In the time of a pandemic, with so many people without work and very stressed, being part of the cause of pro bono work has never been so important – for each of the clients and the legal profession and our society,” CJ Abourezk said. “Beyond providing these legal services, pro bono also helps shape public perceptions about lawyers.”


For decades, CJ Abourezk represented tribal schools and organisations on a reduced, pro bono rate because those clients could not afford his normal rate. As a result of his dedication, he can now rely on “greatly enhanced skills”, that includes skills in contract, personnel issues, administrative law, construction law and evictions.

“This opens up the world – for you and your client. Sometimes, when clients have their empowering experience with a true advocate, and with all the very human exchanges during the course of representation – especially in the two-way learning taking place – neither the client nor the lawyer can ever go back to the way things were. They’ve now both become different people as a result of the exchange,” CJ Abourezk said.

Fellow ABA contributor and president of LAWTERNATIVES Cheryl Rich Heisler added that prospective lawyers have a unique set of professional strengths and a varied view on the world that they can use to make a “difference in others’ lives”.

“Doing good for others can, and often does, feel really good for you as well,” she said. “The practice of law is, at its core, a service profession. Since most of us chose school at least in part for the opportunity to serve our communities, consider choosing to also serve the underserved as your highest legal calling.”

On how to find these opportunities, Ms Heisler advised to turn to the law school service career contacts and alumni departments, as well as any firm contacts. Professors that they admire might also have ideas on where to help, as do local legal offices.

“While I encourage you to pinpoint causes or geographic regions that may be the most meaningful to you, keep your mind open and be willing to help wherever the need may arise. As all ball players say, ‘there’s no I in team’,” Ms Heisler said.

Why young lawyers should prioritise pro bono over billable hours
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