“Happiness doesn’t result from what we get, but from what we give.” – Ben Carson

Pennsylvania Pro Bono Week is scheduled from Oct. 19-25, during which the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) will shine a spotlight on pro bono legal work to increase access to justice.

As we head toward Pro Bono Week, I asked David Trevaskis, pro bono coordinator for the PBA, to put some meat on the bones of why pro bono participation is important and how lawyers can benefit from providing it. Lawyers have an important role to play in the community, he said. Poor people need representation and lawyers traditionally benefit society. As an example of the difference between law and other professions, he remarked that plumbers who went to New Orleans to help after Hurricane Katrina were viewed as saints, while lawyers were viewed as simply doing what they were supposed to do. Lawyers are expected to contribute. The Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct evince this responsibility as well.

Leaving aside moral and professional obligations, what if the benefits of pro bono services flow in both directions? That is Trevaskis’ true anthem. He has been walking the walk since 1985 and attests to vast positive effects of doing this work from his own and others’ experience. Lawyers stand to gain as much, if not more, than clients from pro bono services. He said “pro bono can save your soul.”

Trevaskis is in good company on this point, as research is building that helping others improves happiness and success.

Martin E.P. Seligman is the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Positive Psychology Network. He is known to coaches as the father of positive psychology and author of many books on the subject of happiness and optimism. His book “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” includes a chapter titled “Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?” Seligman chronicles the problems that plague lawyers, including higher rates than the general population for depression, alcoholism, drug abuse and divorce. Seligman writes that American law has “migrated from being a practice in which good counsel about justice and fairness was the primary good to being a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principal ends.”

Among other recommendations, Seligman suggests more pro bono activity to counter lawyer unhappiness.

Adam Grant, the youngest full professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the best-selling book “Give and Take,” adds another perspective to the benefits of giving in the workplace. Grant divides the world into three groups: givers, who are quick to help others by making introductions, sharing time and expertise, mentoring, offering feedback and coaching; matchers, who keep tabs on what they give to ensure a quid pro quo; and takers, who try to get what they can from others without a thought of giving back. His research suggests that the most successful people are often givers. Susan Dominus wrote about Grant for The New York Times in “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?”: “For Grant, helping is not the enemy of productivity, a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity.” Grant’s research suggests that spending time helping and mentoring others improves employee attitudes about work and enhances their desire to do more. “The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other people’s lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

Trevaskis says that treating pro bono clients the same as paying clients is the key to bringing true rewards. I echo that. In my practice as a coach, I often donate coaching packages to silent auctions for charity and participate in free coaching programs for nonprofit organizations. Pro bono clients receive an identical level of service to those who pay. When a pro bono client achieves a long-held goal or dream, it is incredibly rewarding and the good feeling of being a thought partner and catalyst for change stays with me long beyond the engagement. Pro bono work can also generate referrals and recommendations. Grateful clients are happy to spread the word.
Trevaskis urges lawyers to try pro bono work because it:

  • Feels good. Trevaskis has many stories of intense personal gratification where lawyers’ efforts were multigenerational, impacting not only the clients, but their families as well.
    Is a great way to learn areas of the law, especially for new lawyers.
  • Instills confidence. Lawyers may not appreciate how comfortable they are walking into a courthouse, dealing with uniformed guards, judges and confusing legal terms like “prothonotary” until they see how a poor, uneducated person feels about having to overcome these hurdles. Performing pro bono work enhances professional confidence in this way. It reminds lawyers of the skills they have that others do not.
  • Allows attorneys to gain experience while giving back through programs like the Philadelphia Public Interest Fellowship Program. This program provides an opportunity for new attorneys at participating firms to defer private practice for a year while they perform public service at one of Philadelphia’s legal services agencies, such as Community Legal Services, the Education Law Center and the Support Center for Child Advocates.
  • Helps avoid burnout. Many lawyers leave the profession because of dissatisfaction. Pro bono work can alleviate the grind.
  • Enables lawyers who need higher salaries than public interest work can pay, but don’t like their jobs, to feel the joy of doing something just because they love it.
  • Can remind attorneys of the reasons they went to law school in the first place.
  • Makes a difference in the community and people’s lives.

If anyone is nervous about trying it, Trevaskis recommends contacting an established pro bono program. PBA has a list on its website. These programs work with attorneys to ensure potential clients are properly screened, the area of law is appropriate, the attorney is comfortable with it, and provide support and mentoring. Whether an attorney is new and needs experience, or is seasoned and feeling disenchanted, pro bono work can bolster confidence and lift the spirit.


Reprinted with permission from the October 13, 2014 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, reprints@alm.com or visit www.almreprints.com.