Something Blue: Bringing Blue-Collar Roots to the Legal Profession - Finding Purpose and Giving Back

As I continue to move forward in my career and slowly chip away at my student debt, I feel more compelled to pay it forward.  I often wonder whether us “Straddlers” and first generation lawyers have a greater propensity to engage in volunteer work, perhaps as a way to reconcile the duality of gratitude (for how far we have come) and guilt (for what we may have left behind).   

I attended a pro bono training several years ago, sponsored by an area bar association.  At the time, I had been feeling a little uninspired by the daily grind of my work in healthcare compliance and I was in search of a more direct and meaningful way to utilize my law degree in the service of others.  Assuming that I would be participating in this training with like-minded attorneys, I was surprised to learn that some of the participants had been “voluntold” by their law firms to attend the training.  In fact, they openly shared their frustrations about having to do pro bono work at all.  I wish I had kept in touch with at least one of those attorneys to find out whether they had experienced a shift in mindset once they successfully helped a client in need.

According to executive coach Richard Leider, your life’s purpose is the intersection of what your values are, what you like to do, what you’re good at, and what you have to give.  In this competitive job market, it can be challenging to find work that is both fulfilling and pays the bills.  I believe that volunteerism can help fill the void.  It may also lead you to an unexpected career path, or even reignite your passion.

There are so many ways to meaningfully give back, especially if you have a law degree.  Here are just a few examples:

Become an active member of a voluntary bar association (or other professional association).  I recommend that you join a committee in your preferred practice area or affinity group.  Once you pay your membership dues, you can volunteer to serve in a leadership role, contribute to a publication, coordinate an event, moderate a panel, speak to law students, or recruit new members.  These are great ways to contribute to the legal profession and your community.  These are also great opportunities to enhance your resume, make new connections, and explore other practice areas.

Serve on a non-profit board.  Non-profit boards are always in search of volunteers with law degrees, especially when coupled with other experience such as finance, legislative advocacy, or development.  I recommend that you select an organization with a mission that fuels your passion.  In my experience, even if the organization is not actively recruiting new board members, you can reach out to see if you can serve in another capacity first, such as participating in event planning or fundraising.  Be sure to express your commitment to the organization's mission.   Check out Idealist to research organizations and explore current volunteer opportunities. 

Do more pro-bono work.  For example, you can attend a one-day advice and referral clinic to provide brief advice to individuals who would otherwise be unable to access legal help.  Typically, these events take place on a Saturday and require no additional time commitment beyond the clinic itself.  You do not need to be an expert in any specialized area of law, as seasoned attorneys are on-site to assist.  The American Bar Association also has some great resources, including opportunities to provide disaster relief legal assistance and immigration-related pro bono representation.  You can find other pro bono opportunities on the websites of local bar associations and public interest organizations.    

Volunteer to do something you love.  We all know the legal profession is stressful.  I believe that volunteer work can be a welcome and rewarding escape from the stress.  For one of my escapes, I volunteered at a local art museum during an exhibition of one of my favorite artists.  I had majored in art history as an undergraduate, but aside from breezing through a museum or two while on vacation, I hadn’t engaged in deep thought about art since my college days.  By spending just a few hours in the art museum each weekend during the three-month exhibition, I became reacquainted with my love of art.  In addition, I scored free tickets to the exhibition, volunteered alongside some fabulous and creative people, and greeted visitors from all over the world.  As an added bonus, I had the opportunity to use the word "juxtaposition" in an actual conversation...on more than one occasion.  There are countless ways to give back and feel inspired.  Check out VolunteerMatch for ideas.    

What is your most rewarding volunteer experience? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


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