Pro Bono: More Than a Diversity Recruitment Tool

By Lauren R. Jackson
From NALP Bulletin+
November 2022 edition cover story

  • At a Glance: 5 min read
  • Social justice initiatives are being used as selling points in legal recruitment.
  • It is not enough to use movement lawyering to get someone in the door.
  • All work, including pro bono, should be given equal treatment and value.

The call for intentional recruitment efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has been at the forefront of the legal profession over the past few years. Societal shifts, client demands, and the “Great Resignation” have played significant roles in spotlighting a focus on this issue that diverse attorneys have raised for years.

In 2020, many employers took a notable stand in response to the tragic murder of George Floyd. We saw affinity groups not only call for firm-wide statements condemning the actions that led to his death but also a commitment from firm leadership to truly invest in social justice initiatives and the development of diverse attorneys. Many employers expressed their commitment by joining forces to develop councils such as the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance. Alternatively, internal initiatives allowing attorneys to take on pro bono matters in various social justice arenas began to rise, seemingly ensuring that attorneys were able to diversify their practices to include issues of personal importance.

Law students, particularly those belonging to historically underrepresented groups, have paid close attention to the actions taken by employers. Movement lawyering, defined as taking direction from directly impacted communities and organizers, has become an integral part of student studies and the pro bono opportunities they seek from employers. When it comes to DEI, students are acutely aware of their need to join welcoming environments, not just in talk but also in action. During the recruitment season, legal recruiters are tasked with attracting top talent to join their summer classes and beyond. As such, social justice pro bono initiatives have become a selling point when seeking such talent.


Valuing the Whole Attorney

Beyond the recruitment season, the expectation is simple — mean what you promote and promote what you mean. As a career services professional at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), the subject of pro bono work at firms comes up nearly 99% of the time during my counseling sessions. Students who are working through whether the private sector is right for them often ask about these opportunities because they understand the training and resources available at law firms. However, while building a solid foundation for their legal careers, they still desire the opportunity to engage in meaningful work that resonates with them on a personal level.

Many diverse students bear the weight of being the first attorney in their families. Depending on their socioeconomic or demographic backgrounds, their reason for aspiring to be a legal professional may stem from wanting to have a hand in correcting injustices in their communities. There is, however, the underlying acknowledgment of the monetary tradeoff available in a corporate setting. Financial freedom can change the trajectory of one’s life as social justice career opportunities tend to have lower salaries than that of their corporate counterparts. As such, students are faced with a heavy question — how can they integrate their desire to be for the people while seeking financial stability?


Enter Pro Bono

Pro bono plays a significant role in that decision-making process. What can employers do then to ensure that they hold up their end of the bargain when using these DEI initiatives as an attraction tool? The answer is to be clear about how pro bono matters are valued and incorporated into an associate’s workload.

We can all agree that billable client work is necessary to ensure profits are generated. Furthermore, we know that yearly utilization targets are determined at the onset so that associates can have enough work to meet their goals. When an associate makes the decision to incorporate pro bono matters, it is the firm’s responsibility to set the expectation surrounding how many of those pro bono hours can count toward a yearly requirement. It was only in 2021 when we began to see an increase in the number of firms counting pro bono work toward utilization targets. The formula for determining utilization targets signals how much value one brings to the business. Which begs the question, how valued is pro bono work in the corporate setting if hours are not counted in full?

If an employer wants to show they truly care about the overall success and retention of diverse attorneys, then the value of all matters — whether they generate profit or help the greater good — should be considered. It is not enough to share that a potential employer works on specific social justice matters if not counting these hours puts diverse attorneys at a disadvantage from a billable hour standpoint. We often hear stories from associates about the uneven distribution of work, so counting pro bono hours in practice can assist with leveling the playing field.

At the core of it all, the recruitment selling points and the associate experience must match up. It is not enough to use social good to get someone in the door. There must be a showing of true commitment and action to keep them there. Yes, the workload must have balance. However, if all work is given equitable treatment and value, that student who may have been on the fence might not find the decision-making process of which firm to choose as hard.


Lauren R. Jackson, Esq. is Assistant Dean of Career Services for Howard University School of Law. This article was submitted on behalf of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Section.

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