Editor’s Note: In honor of National Pro Bono Week, I’m pleased to host a guest post from Jay Fleischman, a New York bankruptcy lawyer and owner of Legal Practice Pro, on why pro bono service represents a win-win for solos and the legal profession.
If you’re a solo then you’re likely stretched pretty thin already. Between working on existing matters, search for new ones, and maintaining the office there’s not a ton of time left over to take on many pro bono matters. But what if taking such matters actually resulted in a healthier bottom line for your firm?
There are millions of people out there with real legal needs but without the means to pay for competent legal counsel. The ever-contracting economy has decimated the job market, the housing sector, and a host of related industries. That means there are fewer people with the financial resources to pay for help, yet more people than ever who need reliable assistance.
Legal services organizations, meanwhile, are struggling with their own budgetary concerns. Never flush with cash, these agencies are seeing their funding slashed as government pulls back and grants dry up.
You went to law school, so you’ve got the skills needed to help out. But reality also needs to play a role in your decision to take on pro bono work; after all, if you can’t pay your own bills then you’re not going to be much good to anyone.
Luckily, pro bono work can be an excellent way to market your law firm and generate profit.
Some states don’t permit the use of testimonials, but many allow the practice. When you do good work for a pro bono client you should ask for a testimonial to use in your own marketing efforts. When potential clients see testimonials from other people attesting to your skills and remarkable service, they’re more likely to make the decision to hire you as well.
Don’t believe me? Yelp, Amazon and many other sites allow customers to add their ratings and comments. The more positive feedback that a product receives, the more likely other people are to purchase it as well. This element of social proof is extremely powerful, and shouldn’t be overlooked in your law firm marketing efforts.
Actively Seek Referrals
A happy client is a happy client, regardless of whether they’ve paid you a fee or are pro bono. Just because one particular client didn’t have the financial wherewithal to pay a fee doesn’t mean that they don’t associate with others who may be in a position to pay you for your services.
You need to actively seek those referrals, however. Pro bono clients in particular may think that you’re handling their matter but are otherwise too busy to accept new business. Remember, if you don’t ask for the client then you don’t get the client.
It’s important that you are clear with your pro bono clients that they should not be referring to you other people who are not in a position to pay a legal fee. This is a difficult situation, but I’ve found that it’s easily handled by being up front. A great way to approach your client is by saying something along the lines of, “I’d really appreciate it if you’d pass my name and number along to your friends and relatives who may need my help because more paying clients allows me to devote more of my time to pro bono efforts such as yours. Of course, if any of them need pro bono help you need to make sure they contact [name of referring organization]; they do all of the pro bono screening, and anyone who calls me directly gets charged my normal fees.”
Pro Bono Organizations Refer Paying Clients, Too
Not everyone who contacts a pro bono organization is going to qualify for their help. Always remember that your willingness to help out legal services agencies will generate significant goodwill. When a potential paying client calls, you’re going to be first on the list of lawyers to whom they are going to send business.
Keep In Contact
Your pro bono clients may be experiencing a bump in the road financially, but they won’t always be down-and-out. Keep in touch via newsletters, updates, and emails. Send a birthday card or holiday greeting. By remaining in the client’s life, you’ll maximize your chances of getting a paying matter in the door later on.
Let Your Commitment Shine Through
Lawyers have a terrible public image, don’t we? We’re seen as money-grubbing drains on society, throwing around our weight and bullying the little guy in our relentless pursuit of our client’s interests. When you take on pro bono matters you’re standing up for those who are less fortunate financially, and less empowered to stand up for their own legal rights.
Take the time to alert your local news organizations about your commitment to the community and the rights of those who need you most. With so much bad news out there, the press is often hungry for a positive human interest story. You’ll not only gain more exposure for your good work but will also be able to cultivate valuable public relations contacts.
Do Your Best – For The Right Reason
In spite of the fact that pro bono presents incredible opportunities to market your law firm, bear in mind that you should always approach pro bono for what it is – a chance to use your skills to help people selflessly. Our country is in turmoil, and honest people need help now more than ever before. The time you spend to help one person or family is small in relation to the scope of your career.