The Business Case for Pro Bono

It's a widely accepted idea that pro bono is good for the helper as well as the helped. If associates are working 2,200+ hours per year, it's important for the associates and their firms to remember that everyone will be better off if some of that is pro bono. Associates learn a skill-set largely unavailable to them in most of their firm work, including case and team management, client and opposing counsel interaction, and sometimes even courtroom skills. Firms get more well-rounded, well-trained associates, as well as some great p.r. and impressive pro bono participation and hour statistics. Many firms already count at least a certain number of pro bono hours as equivalent to billable hours; given the benefits, this kind of incentive seems like a wise decision.

As tax season draws to a close for my Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site, I have had a chance to really think about everything that I've gotten out of just a few weeks of client sessions. The pro bono does not specifically require legal skills, but I've gotten a lot out of it that helps me in thinking about my legal studies and my work.

I've learned substantive law. I'm sure we discussed the current stimulus benefits in Tax Law last term, at least in passing, but I honestly couldn't have told you a thing about the specifics of the package, like, for example, the Making Work Pay Credit. Now, after having to fill out many Schedules M, and find the applicable line on the 1040, and help clients to figure out if they already received it in whole or in part, I can tell you how much it is, how it's been distributed, and who gets it. I know about the first-time homebuyer incentives, and car-buying incentives (beyond the fact that there's a program that bears the catchy name "Cash for Clunkers"). I know about the regular education credits and the limited-time-only expanded American Opportunity education credit.

I've thought about policy. I was really disappointed when I had to write a comment for my Administrative Law course and I found that the IRS hasn't yet opened it's period of notice and comment on new certification and continuing education requirements for tax preparers. Volunteers in the IRS-sponsored program through which my site operated had to spend hours studying and taking tests to be able to prepare pretty simple tax returns. I was stunned to learn that there is no certification requirement for professional tax preparers-apparently anyone can hang a shingle and start preparing other people's federal returns. So to be clear, volunteers who do pretty simple returns as a rule (the IRS restricts the returns volunteers are permitted to complete) may well be more trained and capable than paid preparers. After seeing how complex a seemingly simple return can be, and how significantly tax law can change from year to year, this policy issue really sank in, and I wanted to weigh in as the IRS finally instituted standards for preparers.

I've felt like a professional. Pardon the hyperbole, but I have to say that it's a heady feeling when I walk into a room and transform from a tired law student into a knowledgeable tax professional, able to find and give answers and tame Schedules A, B, L, M, and the rest. It's also really nice to help people to get their refund (most of our clients are due refunds) quickly and without taking a chunk as payment; we've heard some terrible stories about commercial preparers gouging clients who felt like they were over a barrel. It's also startling to feel trusted as a professional by strangers who turn over very personal documents, and explain personal situations that affect their filing status or some expense. I think the feeling of client trust, and the corresponding feeling of responsibility that it invokes, is one of the most important takeaways from a pro bono project like this one.

The foregoing are just the beginning of the list of skills I've developed through this pro bono project, and I think all of them are essential to a young lawyer's continued development. Law school is a busy time, but a commitment to pro bono is worth making early on, and worth hanging onto throughout a career-it will offer new benefits at every phase of a career, and in every different permutation.

Mira Serrill-Robins is a member of Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.