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Tis the Season for Giving to Others

The holidays remind us of our professional responsibility to help those in need

By Rex S. Heinke
Rex S. Heinke is president of the Association.

This President's Page was originally published in the December 2000 issue of
Los Angeles Lawyer.

As we near the end of the first year of this still-new century and approach the holiday season, it is a good time to remember how fortunate we are and how much others need our help. Despite the views that have become prevalent in some quarters, the practice of law is still a profession, and part of what it means to be a member of a profession is to help others.

It is true that lawyers are currently not held in high esteem by the public. Why is that? Admittedly, the public can be wrong about such matters, yet average citizens seem to understand broadly what is going on in the legal profession, in much the same way that they understand the fundamental beliefs of a political candidate and vote accordingly. The fact is that there are many causes for the public's negative perceptions of lawyers. Some we cannot do much about. For example, lawyers use an arcane language that only they understand, which excludes those who have not been trained in it, and the adversarial system of justice inevitably creates winners and losers, and the losers often have negative feelings about everyone involved with their loss.

These factors aside, we can ameliorate some of the causes of the public's disaffection for our profession-including what may well be the most important factor fostering negative feelings. The public has perceived that many lawyers, in their quest for financial success, have reduced or even abandoned their commitment to help others. Stories about the new, high salaries of lawyers just graduating from law school only exacerbate this perception.

Historically, lawyers have been generous in giving their time to others. This has included pro bono legal services to needy individuals, serving on the boards of and as legal advisers to charitable organizations, or working for one's church, synagogue, or other religious institution. Many lawyers continue to serve in these capacities, but like other good news, these volunteer efforts often do not get the attention they deserve. For example, associates at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP have formed a committee to collect funds from their recently increased salaries to make donations to charitable groups. This wonderful effort has received only limited publicity. Just as thousands of planes land safely every day without attracting much attention, fine efforts such as those by the associates at Munger, Tolles do not get the recognition they deserve.

Why Pro Bono?

While there may not be a lot that we can do about generating more publicity for these charitable acts, we can increase our pro bono efforts. There are numerous reasons to do this.

First and foremost, because it is the right thing to do.

Second, because it will improve the lives of many who do not have any legal skills and thus cannot help themselves.

Third, lawyers enjoy their monopoly over the rendering of legal advice only with the consent of the public. If the public ever concludes that lawyers are abusing or squandering this power, the public can and will take it away. That would have disastrous consequences for lawyers, the public, and the administration of justice, but that does not mean that it cannot happen.

Fourth, we can enjoy great personal satisfaction in helping others. Ask anyone who has done so. The warm glow that comes from helping someone in need is a priceless reward.

Fifth, pro bono work is a wonderful opportunity for personal professional growth. For lawyers-particularly younger ones-who are chomping at the bit to take a deposition, argue a motion in court, go to trial, or do a deal, pro bono work is an effective way to fulfill those needs. If you think you are not getting enough "first chair" experience, this is a way to make sure that you do.

While pro bono work is often viewed as the preserve of the litigator, nothing could be further from the truth. Litigators are certainly needed, but there is plenty of pro bono work for transactional lawyers as well. Nonprofit entities need free legal advice on corporate, real estate, labor, and tax matters just as for-profit corporations do. Helping nonprofits is a wonderful way to contribute, not only by offering legal services but also by becoming actively involved in helping run such organizations. Opportunities to participate in the management of nonprofit groups are available to litigators and transactional lawyers alike.

So you say that you would like to help, but you do not know how you can get involved. That is a problem that we can remedy. The Association and its affiliates have numerous pro bono projects that are in urgent need of your assistance. Here are just a few examples:

  • Public Counsel. Sponsored by the Los Angeles County and Beverly Hills Bar Associations, Public Counsel provides pro bono legal services for indigents in civil matters as well as legal services to nonprofit groups.         
  • Trial Attorney Program. TAP is a great way to get trial experience while providing free legal services to the public as a prosecuting attorney for the Los Angeles City Attorney's office.

At both these Web sites, you will also find information about numerous other pro bono opportunities, such as the AIDS Legal Services Project (part of HALSA, the HIV and AIDS Legal Services Alliance), the Domestic Violence Project, the West Los Angeles Law Days Project, and the Immigration Legal Assistance Project, to name just a few of these worthy organizations.

Charitable Donations

Of course, you can always invoke the excuse that you do not have time to do any pro bono work. That is something that each of us can only answer for ourselves. Without any doubt, the escalating pressure in private practice to increase billable hours has made it difficult for many lawyers to find time to do any pro bono work.

Despite this obstacle, many attorneys somehow find a way to fit pro bono activities into their lives. Hopefully, you can too. But if you cannot, or cannot do very much, there is another way. Money. If you cannot donate your time, you can donate money or other resources. Not only will your contributions be greatly appreciated, they are even tax deductible.

While there are many worthwhile pro bono groups for you to consider when giving, one that should top your list is the Los Angeles County Bar Foundation. In addition to being the main fund-raising organization for the Association's public service projects, it makes donations to a wide variety of pro bono legal groups, including Break the Cycle, Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, Mental Health Advocacy Services Inc., Inner City Law Center, El Rescate Legal Services, and Levitt & Quinn Family Law Center. For more information, go to The foundation webpage  or contact the foundation by e-mail at lstude@lacba.org. You can make donations in any amount, whenever you like. They can be anonymous or earmarked for a particular group.

A generous gift this year seems particularly appropriate because our profession has enjoyed several consecutive years of prosperity. If you are every going to be able to afford a gift of this nature, you probably will never be in a better position to do so than this year. You may, for example, want to contribute to your own favorite legal charity, like the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles or any of a number of other worthy organizations.

But whatever you do, please do not forget that now, before this year ends, is the time to give something to your community. And as you do so, please accept my best wishes for a peaceful, prosperous, and happy new year! 

Los Angeles Lawyer
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