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.