Tackling ‘Enoughness’ with Pro Bono Work
The Bencher—May/June 2022
By Judge David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire
There is a tendency in American society to work long hours, take on more responsibilities, and push oneself to the limit. Practicing as an attorney, particularly a young attorney, is no exception. There are internal and external pressures to bill more hours, take on additional cases and responsibilities, and still be a model parent, friend, and community member. Indeed, many attorneys struggle with “enoughness”: the feeling of being satisfied and fulfilled with one’s current circumstances. According to Brené Brown, PhD—a professor, researcher, and author who specializes in vulnerability and leadership—courage, connections with others, and compassion are key to helping those struggling with enoughness. Exhibiting these qualities can help people live a more fulfilled life. Within the legal profession, pro bono work embraces courage, connections with others, and compassion and can be a useful tool for attorneys struggling to attain enoughness.
Pro Bono Work Requires Courage
Pro bono work can be emotionally taxing. By definition, courts and trial attorneys intersect with people at crisis points, and many pro bono opportunities involve life-impacting situations such as landlord-tenant disputes, protective orders, guardianships, and divorces. Pro bono attorneys often help their clients during the most sensitive and vulnerable times of their lives. It takes courage to willingly accept such a challenge when you know the potential emotional toll it will take. But there are many individuals out there in need of courageous attorneys who will fight for them.
For those considering pro bono work, know that your courage will not go unrewarded or unnoticed. First and foremost, you will derive the satisfaction and fulfillment from knowing that you helped others. You can develop confidence and experience by participating in legal matters—including court appearances—outside your normal practice areas. Judges and your colleagues at the bar will notice your volunteer efforts. And the administration of our adversarial system of justice will operate as intended when all parties have legal representation. These intrinsic and extrinsic benefits of pro bono work only add to the value of such service.
Pro Bono Work Provides New Connections with Others
Pro bono work allows attorneys to step out of their normal sphere of influence and into the worlds of individuals from all walks of life. It provides opportunities that are both educational and insightful. Such interactions can expand your perceptions of the world and perhaps illuminate your own implicit bias or previously held misconceptions. Not only do attorneys get to know their pro bono clients; they typically also have opportunities to meet and establish relationships with other volunteer attorneys. As with clients, getting to know attorneys from outside your typical circle allows for exposure to potential new friends, mentors, and opportunities. These new connections can broaden your horizons and lead to future opportunities.
Connections with others can also provide a sense of grounding, especially when those connections arise from your clients’ crises or disputes. They can help you better appreciate your current family, attorney, and client relationships. They can also help you enjoy the so-called little things in life.
Pro Bono Work Embraces Compassion
By giving back to others through pro bono work, attorneys are leaning into their compassionate side. Many who went to law school full of idealism and a strong desire to truly change the lives of others end up practicing in areas of the law where there are few, if any, such opportunities. Pro bono work—perhaps more than any other field of law—allows for, and sometimes requires, empathy. Pro bono work can prove to both attorneys and clients that the legal profession isn’t all about wins and losses; rather, the practice of law also can be about the process and can show that how lawyers practice law really does make a difference.
Empathy breeds humility and a more grounded view of civilization. And with the civility challenges that plague the profession, more empathy might lead to fewer overly contentious discovery disputes and more collegial exchanges between opposing counsel. A more compassionate legal environment is better for everyone.
Pro Bono Work Can Help Attorneys Attain ‘Enoughness’
Pro bono work allows attorneys to change their focus from themselves to others. The shift away from billable-hour demands and the day-to-day stressors of practice offers a reprieve and an opportunity to reflect and accept our current circumstances while we help others. It is in these moments of selflessness that our own problems assume a new context and may seem a little more manageable.
All in all, pro bono work can bring attorneys closer to finding fulfillment in the practice of law because the satisfaction of volunteerism arises from what truly matters. According to conservation photographer Cristina Mittermeier, “Enoughness is a sense of fulfillment that comes from within and through our natural environment, rather than through material things; a sense of connectedness to our friends and family, to our spirituality, to our traditions, and to our culture.” Pro bono work creates an opportunity to embrace self-reflection and wholeheartedly accept our natural environment, however it may look at a particular moment in time.
So the next time you have the opportunity to perform pro bono work, take it. It may just help you take a step in the direction of feeling truly fulfilled and closer to experiencing enough.
Judge David W. Lannetti is a circuit court judge in Norfolk, Virginia (Virginia’s Fourth Judicial Circuit). Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire, is a civil litigator who is currently taking a leave of absence from private practice to serve as a judicial law clerk on the newly expanded Court of Appeals of Virginia. Lannetti is a past president, and both he and Eaton are current Executive Committee members of the James Kent American Inn of Court in Norfolk. The views advanced in this article are those of the authors alone and should not be mistaken for the official views of the Norfolk Circuit Court or the Court of Appeals of Virginia.