Pro tips for your pro bono experience

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one.

This week we present: money.


There are always two sides to an issue.
(photo via Shutterstock)

Let’s say your project is close to becoming a real-deal nonprofit or social enterprise. Now there’s all this legal jargon to navigate—and you don’t know where to start.

On top of that, you’re a bootstrapping entrepreneur and don’t have mega cash to shell out to get all the answers you need.

So maybe you check out the Foundation Center or wade through hundreds of articles online. But you’re still confused and need more one-on-one attention.

One solution? Find a pro bono lawyer.

But like sustaining any good project, making that relationship work requires patience and understanding. Here’s how to make the most of it.

Get up, stand up for your rights

We wrote recently about Drive Change, a food truck in NYC that trains and employs formerly incarcerated youth.

Founder Jordyn Lexton wasn’t sure if she wanted it to be a for-profit or nonprofit entity. So when a big-name law firm offered to help, she eagerly jumped at the opportunity.

It didn’t turn out to be quite the experience she hoped for.

“I recognized in myself that I was less persistent, and less authoritative, because they were doing it for free,” she says. “It pushed back the timeline, and a couple of mistakes they made pushed back our incorporation status.”

In the end, however, the extra time gave Jordyn the opportunity to explore more options about what Drive Change wanted to be.

She learned a ton from the experience, and the biggest tips she has are to make sure your lawyer is familiar with tax law, especially as it pertains to nonprofits, and that he or she works for a supportive firm that can help them access answers quickly. And while you don’t need to invite them to your wedding, make the relationship as personal as you can.

“Meet in person—a lot. Get to know them and build the relationship so they become more invested in you and your work,” she says.

Courting your lawyer

New Jersey Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (NJVLA) is a nonprofit that helps artists and arts organizations understand their legal rights and navigate messy problems.

To date, their lawyers have collectively put in over 4,300 hours for a total of 1.7 million dollars in legal fees—for free.

“We’re greasing the wheels of arts in the state,” says board president Peter Skolnik.

NJVLA offers three types of pro bono services: Legal Lines, Law Fax, and Full Service Representation. Have a problem registering copyright for your photographs? Give them a call. Need help deciphering your recording contract? Send them a fax.

If you have an issue that isn’t going to be solved by a simple phone call or fax, NJVLA offers the whole shebang for artists and organizations that fit within certain income guidelines. They start the process by sending an email blast to their cadre of 250 volunteer lawyers to see who would be the best match.

Once you’ve secured your counsel, Peter advises being clear about what you need from the start.

“It’s important for clients to try their best to drill down to what the real problem is, rather than providing so much background that it becomes difficult to understand what the legal issue is,” he says. “Decide what ‘triggering’ event made you realize you need a lawyer.”

Lawyers have lots of different obligations, after all. It can be challenging for them to balance their time, and to do something for free when they only have so many hours in the day, especially when they have paying clients. They’re only human.

But that doesn’t mean they can slack off. From Peter’s perspective, the duty they have is the same.

“One on hand, you shouldn’t assume that because you’re not paying, a lawyer can take a week to get back to you,” he says. “On the other hand, nonpaying clients should assume that lawyers are looking out for interests in a professional manner. If that’s taking longer than expected, you should be sensitive to the fact that your lawyer knows what has to be done and when. It will get done.”

Have you ever worked with a pro bono lawyer or are you one yourself? Tell us about a good experience you’ve had.

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