Spotlight on Student Public Service: “Pro Bono Work is for Everyone!” by a Future BigLaw Attorney

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.

This week, the 2013-14 PSJD Pro Bono Publico (PBP) Award honorees will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. Today, we’re featuring  Emory Law student Rachel Erdman, who helped PBP Award winner Martin Bunt create a student-run veterans’ rights clinic.

Atlanta Photographer | LeahAndMark & Co. | Emory Law

My name is Rachel Erdman, and together with Martin Bunt I co-founded the Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans. When people hear about my work with the Clinic, they generally assume that like Martin, I want to work in military law or in the public sector. When I explain that I’m going into intellectual property law at a large firm, I get confused looks. I’m often asked, “But then why are you so involved with pro bono work in veteran law?” The answer is simple: Attorneys aren’t limited by their area of law or firm size. Pro bono work is for everyone!

I did not seek out my biggest pro bono project, the Volunteer Clinic for Veterans. Instead, the Clinic found me. When Martin approached me at the end of 1L year, I had already accepted two other officer positions in extremely active student groups, and I knew that I would likely be on journal.  “I want to start this Clinic, but I can’t do it alone,” he said. “Will you help me?” There were a thousand reasons to say no. I didn’t have the time, it wasn’t in my area of focus, and we didn’t have a clear idea as to how I could even contribute. But in the end, pro bono work relies on us being able to open our hearts and say yes. You will always be glad that you did.

As attorneys and law students, we have the unique skill-set to help people in need, no matter what our background. Oddly enough, it was my background in science and systems that proved invaluable to the Clinic. Unlike Martin, I do not possess the admirable ability to walk into a room and immediately engage people in conversation. I typically end up turning red and mumbling something vaguely offensive, so I left the networking up to my co-founder. Instead, I quietly created the student-side infrastructure that one of the largest veteran’s clinics in the country needed to operate, all entirely for free. No matter what your background, you’ll always find an area that needs your skills.

Going into the private sector doesn’t mean that we can’t also volunteer. When I decided to pursue a job in Big Law, my public-sector law friends joked that I had turned to the dark side. But Big Law attorneys can play a critical role as pro bono advocates. Pro bono work is a never-ending flood of people in need. The attorneys that dedicate their lives to helping others simply can’t do it alone. They need allies in firms of all sizes and in every field of law.

Think of the Salvation Army standing outside of a store, ringing their bells with the big red buckets during Christmastime. If just one person in a group of people walking past these buckets tosses in their change, other people in the group are more likely to follow. The same applies to a firm. When people are involved in pro bono work, other attorneys in the firm are more likely to be interested. If pro bono interest is strong enough, the firm will even change its policies to make volunteering easier, such as allowing some pro bono hours to count towards the billable hour requirement, or organizing fundraising and charity events. Pro bono advocates in the private sector can therefore play a huge rule in shaping the pro bono community.

So next time you find yourself wondering whether you should take on a pro bono project, don’t be discouraged by your background or your area of law. The pro bono community is full of attorneys that would be more than happy to guide and mentor you. And most importantly, the people that you help don’t care about your background or if you’re in Big Law or from a tiny firm – they’re just happy that you said yes.

* Photo taken by Atlanta photographers LeahAndMark & Co.

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