As a bit of background, when I opened my own law firm I started looking for volunteer opportunities. I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t looking for volunteer opportunities out of the kindness of my heart, but was looking at them as ways to network. What I’ve gained from my volunteer opportunities is so much more than that.
If you were asking for my advice, I would suggest finding volunteer opportunities outside of the law. Of course, it’s great to take some pro bono cases if you are able (or required by your state bar) but volunteering in a different capacity has some added benefits.
First, you create a better work/life balance. If you are only volunteering in legal capacities, you are probably viewing your “volunteer” time as simply unpaid work time, which is extremely frustrating. If you choose to volunteer in an area that you love, i.e. working with the homeless, supporting victims of domestic violence, spreading cancer awareness, you will view your volunteer time as personal time. One of my volunteer activities is advocating for survivors of domestic and sexual violence while they are in the ER. I love it because I can use my skill of advocacy, which I’ve honed through being a lawyer, in a non-legal way. My job, as a volunteer, is not to advocate legally for the victims, but to make sure they are comfortable, have all of the resources they could need, have a safe place to go home, etc. It gives my mind a break from always thinking in terms of the law.
Second, it gives you perspective, which you can bring to your law practice. With that same volunteer activity, I learn to see clients who are retaining me for protective orders in a completely different light and am more empathetic towards them. Because in my spare time, I work with similarly situated people in a personal manner, I can better understand my clients in the professional manner. Similarly, if you are volunteering with a cancer awareness organization, you may be able to bring some new light to your meetings with estate planning clients. Anytime that we can see our clients through personal eyes, while still maintaining our professionalism, our clients benefit.
Volunteering in a non-legal capacity also gives your mind a break. We, as lawyers, tend to constantly think about cases; but sometimes, we need a break to allow new thoughts and ideas to come to us. When you are immersed in a volunteer activity, you typically don’t have the time to be worried and stressed about your cases. We’ve all had those moments where we can let go from work for a couple of hours and when we come back at it with a rested brain and fresh eyes, the answers appear almost magically. When you choose to volunteer, you are forcing your brain to take that much needed break while also contributing to your community. If you schedule regular volunteer times, you will likely find that your productivity during work time significantly increases.
And of course, the reason I started getting into volunteering, networking is always an added benefit. While volunteering, you will meet people from all different walks of life. Sometimes those paths will cross with your law practice and sometimes not. But if I’ve learned one thing as a solo practitioner it is this, you never know when someone will need your services. I have had, on multiple occasions, someone I met through volunteering years in the past come to me years later because they remembered me from that activity. When you make a personal impact on someone’s life, which is what happens most often when you volunteer, people remember you and remember you fondly. While I will now absolutely say that I got into volunteering for the wrong reasons because my experience in volunteering has taught me so much more than just focusing on growing my business, networking has remained an added benefit for me.
The final thing I’d like to share with you all is to start small. Find a passion of yours, reach out to local organizations who have similar missions and start volunteering on a small basis with them. Allow your volunteerism to grow naturally as you learn more and more about what it is you love to do. It will not only improve your practice and your skills as a lawyer but it will improve you as a person and make a tremendous impact on your life.