I remember it clearly. My client was shivering before me, on the brink of being evicted into the cold Boston winter with her four kids. I went with her to her rented apartment where I found the heat barely working, the family relying on the oven for warmth; exposed, live electrical wiring; holes in walls and floors and a major cockroach infestation.
The landlord had refused to bring the building up to code, but my client wasn’t aware that she had a legal right to withhold rent. As a law student working at the Legal Aid Housing Clinic, I had been studying contracts, torts and other subjects but now was seeing the law play out with an immediacy I could only have imagined before. We went to court to keep her in her home while forcing her landlord to make improvements.
Witnessing the power of pro bono service to help those most in need, I joined a law firm with a demonstrated commitment to helping clients who could not afford to pay. The firm had a partner coordinating the pro bono work, and associates could apply pro bono hours to part of their billable hour requirement.
Young lawyers like me got more hands-on experience in court, while the firm gained from a boost in recruiting, engagement, retention and positive public relations — all while making the world a more just place.
Five years ago, I took the helm of the 25-year-old Foundation for Financial Planning (FFP), and it’s been an honor to foster pro bono service among financial advisors. As in the law, financial planning practitioners have a passion for giving back, lending their skills to those who would normally have to go without the objective, fiduciary advice that more affluent families can easily access.
The financial planning profession is much younger than the profession of law, but the latter can teach us important lessons on how to turbocharge pro bono in an ongoing pandemic era when families need assistance more than ever before.
One of the most important lessons is that when the big law firms embraced pro bono at the institutional — as opposed to an individual lawyer — level, engagement in pro bono exploded. In fact, when a national Pro Bono Challenge was launched in 1993 to better engage big law firms, it resulted in the growth of pro bono hours at the nation’s top 100 firms from 1.5 million billable hours that year to 4.2 million in 2011.
That’s why it is hard to overstate the importance of the joint statement that members of FFP’s Corporate Advisory Council recently issued in support of pro bono service, receiving widespread attention.
The Council is made up of key corporate leaders in financial advice — who collectively employ thousands of advisors and interact with thousands more — who have made advancing pro bono a common purpose and who for the first time have joined together publicly to bolster this critical public service.
Putting Pro Bono in Place
For the first time, these companies are calling on the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards to recommend that those it certifies provide a minimum of 25 voluntary hours of pro bono each year. This is similar to an American Bar Association recommendation for lawyers in 1983 that helped propel the growth of pro bono in that field. FFP joins our Council members in requesting that CFP Board send this vital cue to the profession.
The timing is optimal as CFP Board is leading a planning process to envision the next 10 years of the profession’s development, while seeking input from a range of key stakeholders.
In addition, the CFP Board has been consistently supportive of FFP, regularly promoting the Foundation’s pro bono programs to CFP professionals and contributing monetary and in-kind resources towards our pro bono mission. I anticipate continuing the conversation with CFP Board leadership and know that its leaders will consider our recommendation in their strategic planning process.
As a complement to their recommendation to CFP Board, FFP’s Corporate Council members also have committed to evaluate their own policies, practices, communications and relationships to remove barriers and encourage pro bono service.
This institutional commitment can foster company-wide changes and new industry norms that will grow pro bono service, unleashing the talents of many more advisors who can assist at-risk families navigate their financial challenges, triage financial crises and get on a path toward long-term economic security.
As American families continue to grapple with the financial fallout of COVID-19, more leading financial services firms — planning providers, clearing and custody, asset managers, fintech, and others — are joining FFP’s Council and embracing our pro bono mission. Their collective voices and actions will be essential to turbocharging the pro bono movement in financial advice.
Many years ago, key law firm leaders stepped up to embrace pro bono not just as something their individual employees felt was important, but as a service that could lift the entire profession. Today, we commend all Corporate Council leaders for playing this role and for urging others to join them.
Jon Dauphiné, Esq., is CEO of the Foundation for Financial Planning.