Pro Bono or Pro Community? Why not both?

By Jim Grandone | May 18, 2012


One of the most rewarding experiences I've had was when I was president of my professional association, the International Association of Business Communicators – St. Louis Chapter.

My board was filled with some of the best and most creative minds in the region, and they were essential to a successful term. They and many volunteers worked together to make a huge success of the annual Bronze Quill Awards and other important events for IABC.

I stay in touch with some of them still and it was 20 years ago when I served.

Not-for-profit boards of directors are a premier venue for lawyer networking. Because they provide a place where people interact, they are not as impersonal as social media, such as LinkedIn. Think about it, when you choose a board on which you want to serve, you join a group of people interested in the success of the same cause in the same community.

Not-for-profit board members often are a select group of people who have been vetted for what the organization needs and what they can contribute. Boards frequently consist of small business owners, officers in corporations or their spouses, which make them excellent contacts for new business development. Of course board work is sometimes time consuming. Volunteer boards may lack the staff needed to execute what the board decides; which means you do the work. Many larger, well-funded boards have excellent staff members but the board members still work hard on fundraising.

Some boards are hierarchical, which will require you to start at the bottom rung and work your way up the ladder. Others are more egalitarian and, especially for professionals, you will be a valued member from the outset. Some prestigious boards, such as that of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, are difficult to join and you must be asked to serve so you may want to consider starting small with a not-for-profit in your community. Whichever board you choose, the common element of each one is your level of interest in what they do.

A lawyer on a not-for-profit board of directors is an instant expert.

While you may have to do some research into the intricacies of the tax code, update by-laws, research real estate leases, and other issues, you are seen as a valuable member of the organization. And, yes, people will ask you unrelated legal questions, but that is part of your life anyway. The value lies in meeting people at the appropriate level with a common interest who see you as an expert.

The networking aspect, as always, is what you make of it. In the end, all such service is rewarding because of the good you do for the community, as well as the contacts you make.

Openings frequently exist on both prestigious and smaller boards that may support your cause or interest. They all need legal advice or, at least, someone to point them in the right direction.

Getting on the right board of directors is a complex process.

Nevertheless, Grandone Media Strategies has successfully introduced many lawyers to board recruiters in the St. Louis Metro. Board banks also exist, such as with the United Way, where professionals are matched with boards of not-for-profit organizations' needs when and where they are needed.

The rewards, while not necessarily financial, and often intangible, give you a chance to put away the timesheet and enjoy lawyering again without the Sword of Damocles – the billable hour – swinging overhead.

You may have to serve some pro bono time as part of your career. Why not spend your free time doing something you like, helping a good cause and your practice at the same time?

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