In 2006, a Bangladeshi immigrant in Los Angeles was in trouble. A delay in the visa application process put her at risk of deportation. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her family back home had threatened to kill her if she returned because she married a Pakistani man while in America.
Enter Brent Nichols, a lawyer who started with national firm Sidley Austin that year. He took on her case as his first pro bono, or “for the good of all,” experience as part of his training. He and another associate learned her history, gathered and evaluated documentary evidence and motivated her even though she had begun to lose hope of ever seeing a resolution.
In the end, the judge granted the woman asylum. She wasn’t the only one who benefited from the experience. “To know you can go into court and handle all the unexpected events that occur and questions you might not anticipate is huge for your confidence early on in your career,” Nichols said. In this case, he not only got his first taste of working with experts, but also he learned how to function in a highly emotional setting.
Regardless of the firm, all lawyers are expected to do pro bono work, in which they work for free to serve disadvantaged clients. Chicago-based Sidley Austin has harnessed the requirement to not only serve the public, but also to help new lawyers gain experience that will facilitate career advancement.
Connecting With the Community
Before associates take on these real-life cases, they learn the processes through Sidley Austin’s traditional development programs. But books and mock depositions can’t teach confidence, working with clients and connecting with the community.
That’s why the firm marries its commitment to serving the communities of each of its 18 offices to its commitment to lawyer training and professional development, said Eilish Cahalan, the East Coast director of training and development.
Through pro bono work, firm partners guide associates through what is sometimes their first full law proceeding, from the beginning of a case to the final verdict. This already gives them more experience than a traditional training track because they get to participate in every step of the process.
“For junior associates in particular, first or second years might not have had a chance to put witnesses on the stand or cross examine,” said Frank Broccolo, the pro bono chairman of the Los Angeles office. Pro bono cases also get participants involved in types of law Sidley Austin doesn’t always practice, such as immigration or custody issues, which helps young associates network and expands the firm’s knowledge base.
Sidley Austin’s programs are tailored to reflect the needs of the communities in which they’re located, said Jeffrey Green, firmwide chairman of Sidley Austin’s pro bono committee.
For example, sixth- and seventh-year associates in the New York office collaborate with the New York City Law Department when taking and defending depositions in 10-week rotations. In Washington, D.C., associates take on custody cases and landlord-tenant work. Sidley Austin lawyers in Los Angeles work on immigration cases such as Nichols’ first pro bono experience, as well as work with the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice to help domestic violence victims obtain restraining orders from their abusers.
Law and Order: Special Skills Unit
Real casework helps build strategy when it comes to questioning witnesses, anticipating what questions opposing council will ask or object to, and developing a game plan on how to approach a case. It also gives associates an opportunity to participate in new aspects of the job.
The biggest advantage comes in personal and professional development. Being able to see a case all the way through or having a large stake in the process gives new lawyers confidence in their skills, which makes them more engaged and enthusiastic about taking responsibility in for-pay cases.
Self-assurance isn’t just important for a lawyer’s performance. Green said an associate can’t inspire confidence in a client if he or she doesn’t have some confidence already. “You can have reservations, but you have to have some confidence that you’re exercising your judgment in the right way and that your instincts are taking you to the right place,” he said. “A lot of young lawyers don’t have that.”
Green said inexperienced associates can take harsh tones in letters or meetings, use too much legal jargon or overburden a client with too many details. They overcome these issues more easily when guided by the more experienced partners who supervise their pro bono work.
It’s not always easy to get partners involved, however. Green said the biggest challenge he sees is getting more experienced lawyers out of their comfort zones, which in turn works as a development opportunity for even the most experienced Sidley Austin employees. “We’ll convince a partner to go down to the Social Security Administration and appeal a denial, and they’re terribly nervous, so we’ll do confidence-building sessions,” he said. “As soon as they’re done with it … they come back and ask me, ‘When can I take my next case?’ ”
As enthusiastic as partners and associates might be about providing legal services in these programs, balancing it with paid cases can be another challenge. American Bar Association members commit on average 3 percent of their time to pro bono work, but Green said his ideal would be 5 to 10 percent.
For the Good of the Learner
Apart from skills, pro bono work also provides lawyers with a sense of fulfillment. Broccolo said people are happier when they’re involved in cases where they’ve clearly made a difference in their clients’ lives. Cahalan said work makes lawyers more passionate about cases, which means they’re more likely to step into mentoring roles for other junior associates, bringing it full circle and carrying on the same programs that got them to where they are at Sidley Austin.
Other participants become board members or fundraisers for legal service organizations they worked with at the start of their career, which the firm supports. Sharing that passion boosts retention andengagement.
“We have this strong commitment to pro bono,” Green said. “Lots of firms have that. But we’re doing it as part of our DNA.” He said pro bono work has been important to the firm since it was founded in 1866, and using it for training has been practiced for decades.
Although Sidley Austin views the training aspects of its pro bono work as secondary to its community impact, the effects the programs have on its employees benefit both new associates and the firm itself. Green said the firm uses informal checklists for individual associates that track what experience each has throughout an assignment. Further, he said the firm doesn’t differentiate on an individual basis whether those skills came in a pro bono case or in a case for an established client paying standard rates.
A lack of hard metrics doesn’t mean the benefits aren’t there, however. Cahalan said just the number of hours of real-world experience illustrates the program’s benefits. For example, in the New York office’s deposition rotation, associates participate in 50 to 60 hours. All cases give learning lawyers the ability to test their skills and prove their worth.
“We can talk about what those hours would translate to in fees as evidence of our blood and sweat commitment to the community, but those are cold facts,” Green said. “What really excites me is to be with one of those young lawyers in court … and watch a young legal eagle take flight for the first time.”