January 2014 Bar Bulletin
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January 2014 Bar Bulletin

180 Hours: Lessons Learned in a Year of Pro Bono

By Autumn T. Johnson


As a brand new solo practitioner in a brand new city, it seemed to me that time was my greatest resource. Literally, when I hung my shingle I had zero clients, so I thought volunteering would be a good use of my time.

I could meet people, learn new skills and help people all at the same time. It wasn't until I calculated my volunteer hours for WSBA in December that I realized I volunteered 180 hours this past year. In that time, I learned a lot about legal aid and how to work with clients, but also about myself.

It might go without saying, but not all volunteer experiences or nonprofit organizations, for that matter, are created equal. Some organizations and roles are just a better fit for you than others. Maybe this is about what skills you bring to the table, but maybe it is about organizational culture or even passion.

I had the privilege to interview Court of Appeals Judge Bradley Maxa for another publication last year and he told me that while he volunteered a lot of time, he did not feel restricted to volunteer only as a lawyer. I have come to really appreciate skills-based volunteering and, obviously, as a lawyer you have special skills, but a lot of those skills translate even in non-legal settings.

Washington Women Lawyers organizes a volunteer event at Mary's Place, a center that offers a staggering number of resources to homeless or low-income women in Seattle. It has a shelter, kitchen, nurse, showers, laundry facility, children's playroom and more. WWL asks lawyers to come and help women at Mary's Place create or revise their resumes or cover letters to better able them to obtain employment.

I did not need to be a lawyer to help a woman create a resume and yet it was one of the most rewarding volunteer experiences I had last year. I think it is because I feel so passionately about the organization and its mission, but also because I really believe I was able to make a meaningful contribution.

This same idea applies even when volunteering in a legal capacity. I spent several months volunteering with KCBA's Young Lawyers Division Walk-In Legal Clinic. It is a general clinic, where people can come with any legal issue and do not need an appointment.

When you volunteer you do not know what kind of help the next client might need. Many of the clients I saw needed help with family law, protection orders or small claims matters. I had originally set out to be an environmental attorney and wound up a small business and nonprofit attorney, so I really know almost nothing about family law, small claims or protection orders. I was able to help clients understand their legal forms and spot issues, but I often had to refer them to the Family Law Neighborhood Legal Clinic or other resources.

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