When Lawyers Work Pro Bono It’s More Than a Case of Good Will

The legal profession, its associations, firms and law schools have spent years and considerable money encouraging lawyers to do more pro bono work. A new study by University at Buffalo sociologist Robert Granfield, Ph.D., finds, however, that mandatory law school programs, bar association campaigns and good will are not the principle spurs provoking lawyers to work for the public good.

In a study published in the current issue of Law and Society Review, Granfield reports that these inclinations may be influenced more greatly by the expectations, pressures, incentives and preferences rooted in the institutions for which they work.

A related article will be published in the April edition of Buffalo Law Review.

The study “The Meaning of Pro Bono: Institutional Variations in Professional Obligation,” used regression analysis to examine data obtained from 474 attorneys who graduated from three law schools, all of which had mandatory pro bono programs, in the northeastern, western and southern U.S.

Granfield says that while, in general, participants in mandatory law school programs value pro bono work more than those not involved in them and believe it has a positive impact on them, such experiences may not lead to greater investment in such work.

Previous research has indicated that the recent burgeoning interest in pro bono work does not necessarily arise from the goodness of a practitioner’s heart, but is a response to conditions external to them.

Granfield goes further, finding that the settings within which lawyers practice make possible certain strategic decisions about lawyering for social justice while foreclosing others.

He says, “Different ‘communities of practice’ in the legal profession — small firms, large firms, solo practice, for instance — produce variations in professional identity and consciousness, some of which support pro bono work and some of which do not, and that these influence the pro bono attitudes of members of the community in question.”

Granfield examined the impact of a number of variables on respondents’ attitude toward pro bono work in general, their motivations for performing it and the benefits they saw in it. The findings point to the significance of practice setting.

Small law firms or solo practices perform pro bono, but are constrained by limited resources and are significantly less supportive of mandatory pro bono proposals in the profession than are attorneys in larger firms.

Lawyers working as in-house counsel, Granfield found, are significantly less likely to engage in volunteer work in general, are significantly less supportive of pro bono and proposals for mandatory pro bono work and perform less of it than lawyers in other settings.

Organizational sectors also affect the motivations for practicing pro bono. Given the restraints placed on them by their workplace, some attorneys in large firms are motivated by the desire to have greater autonomy over cases, work directly with clients and reduce their sense of alienation. Others are motivated by a particular ideology or a desire to gain personal satisfaction. Still others do so to satisfy professional obligations or to mirror the attitudes of those around them.

Granfield proposes a complex of factors that produce the effects in each institutional setting and offers an explication of how the kinds of clients, income and relative marginality of certain practices may influence pro bono decisions.

Sex and race entered into the equation as well, with women respondents significantly more likely than men to endorse mandatory pro bono programs, value such work, believe it allows them to give something back to their community and that performing it increases their satisfaction in being an attorney.

Male respondents were more likely than women to believe that too much emphasis is placed on volunteer work in the legal profession.

Non-white respondents tended to regard pro bono as a way to give something back to their community. They were significantly less likely than whites to believe that too much emphasis is placed on pro bono within the legal profession.

Non-white respondents also were significantly more likely than their white counterparts to report that they benefit from the pro bono work they perform — that it enhances their legal skills, enables them to acquire clients and contacts, helps them establish a professional reputation and that it promotes career mobility.

“For centuries pro bono work was dispensed by attorneys in an informal, atomistic manner through charitable organizations,” Granfield says.

“Now it has been institutionalized. It is more centralized and streamlined, distributed through an elaborate organizational structure embedded in and cutting across professional associations, law firms, state-sponsored legal services programs and nonprofit public interest groups.

“New professional roles for attorneys related to pro bono work are becoming more popular, many state bar associations now offer annual recognition for pro bono and some firms permit attorneys to credit a portion of their volunteer legal work to their billable hour requirements.”

“These practices may increase support for pro bono work, ” says Granfield, “but this study shows that it is different legal organizational sectors that provide the context within which the meaning of pro bono finds expression and is acted upon.”

Granfield is professor and chair of the UB Sociology Department and a leader in the UB 2020 strategic initiative on Civic Engagement and Public Policy. He is the author of four books and more than 50 scholarly articles and reviews in peer-reviewed journals.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.

Source University at Buffalo

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