In 2012, I spent hundreds of hours doing pro bono work. I will likely do as much if not more in 2013. Many of my greatest successes, and also a few of my biggest frustrations, came from cases I agreed to handle free of charge. I’ve learned some important lessons along the way. If you’re hoping to find pro bono representation, let me give you a few pointers.
First, I can’t help you with your New Jersey case. I don’t know what the hell is happening in New Jersey, but I couldn’t improve my pro bono Google juice in New Jersey if I tried. Your New Jersey case may be fascinating, and it may be just the sort of thing I’d be willing to do pro bono if it was an Arizona case, but I’m not licensed there. I don’t know the first thing about New Jersey’s criminal laws, and I’m certainly not going to travel across the country to embarrass myself in a jurisdiction where I have no intention of ever practicing. Sorry folks.
Second, I’m not going to represent you if you’re an entitled asshole. I don’t take pro bono cases because I want people to like me. I know I will never achieve fame or fortune because of my pro bono work. In fact, I don’t even anticipate ever getting a sincere thank you. My criteria vary wildly from day to day, and if I tried to list them now, they’d probably be completely different by the end of the day. The only thing that remains constant is the fact that I will almost never represent you if you initiate contact by telling me I should be interested in representing you by virtue of the fact you heard that I assisted someone else free of charge. If you call me on my cell late at night or on a weekend when there’s no urgency, or if you email me incessantly, I will not be inclined to help you either. I’m not looking for hugs and kisses, but I’m also not looking for a pain in the ass.
Finally, your guilt or innocence doesn’t matter to me. Neither does the importance of your case or the publicity surrounding it. You don’t know what matters to me. You have no idea what causes I care about or what traits I look for in a client. Just be honest and tell me the facts. I will verify everything, so you should be truthful. I can guarantee that I will not represent you if you lie to me. Nothing you can do now, even if that includes pleading your case to me in a batshit crazy all-caps email or bragging to me about the influential people you know, is going to tip the scales and convince me to represent you pro bono. There are a lot of things you could do that would convince me not to represent you pro bono.
I am the first to admit that I’m a lucky person, and I feel a strong sense of responsibility to help others in part due to my good fortune. I don’t feel guilty about not helping everyone, however. I do plenty for my paying clients, and I certainly don’t feel guilty about requiring payment from them. I won’t hesitate to turn down any case if I think there’s a good reason for turning it down. I’m not the the only lawyer who feels this way. You’re probably going to struggle finding anyone willing to help you at all if you don’t take my suggestions to heart.