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A Different Ode to Pro Bono Work

A Different Ode to Pro Bono Work

By Troy Shelton  

“Would you be interested in helping a group of us create an appellate pro bono program for North Carolina?”  

That was the pitch to me from a group of former and current appellate judges, the director of the Pro Bono Resource Center and the lead appellate counsel for another state program.  

I was a young associate and had no business getting that invitation. If I brought anything to the table, it was only enthusiasm. But a couple of years later, our little ad hoc group did manage to create the state’s first appellate pro bono program, which I administered for five years.  

But I could have said no. If you want to find a reason not to do pro bono work, you’ll find one.  You’re busy. The hours don’t bill themselves. Things are wild at home.  

You don’t have to be a disciple of Ayn Rand to wonder about the return on investment for pro bono work. Saying yes to pro bono will cost me something, so how can it benefit me? 

Pro bono work could shape your career. Creating the appellate pro bono program introduced me to the state’s appellate bar. Cases that I handled myself through the program helped make me eligible to sit for the appellate specialization exam. After launching the program, I also changed firms so I could focus on appellate law. Today, appeals are basically my entire practice.  

Pro bono work also can open doors. It’s given me the chance to meet and work with other appellate practitioners, state appellate judges and our appellate court clerks.  

But set aside my experience, and consider how pro bono work could strengthen ties with people you know. Want to develop better ties with one of your firm’s institutional clients? Your team and their in-house counsel could devote half a day to a driver’s license restoration project. You and the client can get to know each other better, while clients benefit from your free legal help. The N.C. Pro Bono Resource Center facilitates this and many other excellent opportunities.  

Can’t find the right program for you? Make your own. The appellate pro bono program works because it benefited everyone: The volunteers get oral argument experience, the litigants get representation, and the judges get good briefings on hard questions. On top of that, the administrative burden on the bench and bar is minimal. It takes some thought, but the program will work if it has good incentives.   

For younger attorneys in particular, pro bono work helps develop the skills they lack. I went straight from college to law school, so my prior work experience was limited to waiting tables. I was desperate to interact with real clients and do real legal work. In law school, I signed up for several wills clinics. It’s a big jump from “How would you like your steak cooked?” to “What do you want to happen after you die?”  

I don’t draft wills anymore, but I still have hard conversations with clients. Pro bono work quickly gets you in front of clients.  

My last suggestion is to be bold as you develop expertise. Here’s a final story of a pro bono endeavor with a big impact.  

For over a decade, the North Carolina Court of Appeals had rejected any notion that public schools had a constitutional duty to stop bullying and abuse. But the Supreme Court had never spoken on the issue.  

At last, a case came out at the Court of Appeals with a dissent, priming the issue for Supreme Court review. I hesitated to reach out and offer to offer pro bono help on the appeal. Was I too young to run such an important appeal?  

After conferring with my mentor, I stilled the doubt, took the appeal and got a decade of bad precedent unanimously overturned. The case’s name gave birth to a new type of state constitutional claim—a Deminski claim. I still get calls about the case, and it has led to paid legal work.  

To be sure, there are moral reasons for doing pro bono work, and it would be nice if those were reason enough for every lawyer. That said, pro bono work can, and for busy lawyers probably should, pair with professional development goals. Don’t feel bad for wondering what pro bono work can do for you. But there are many, many ways to make it work.  

So, what’s holding you back? 

Troy Shelton is an appellate partner at Fox, Rothschild in Raleigh. He received the N.C. Bar Association’s 2023 Younger Lawyer Pro Bono Service Award.

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