There are some men in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them. – Miss Maudie, speaking about Atticus Finch, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

After four decades of practicing, I still often think of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. He is, I suspect (and hope), what we as attorneys aspire to be: defender of the defenseless, courageous in the face of scorn, undaunted in the face of a lost cause.

Recent discussions about finding ways for young attorneys to get into court, including debates about apprenticeships and law student appearances in court, remind me that the practice of law can be a great calling. But even after many years of practice, we all seem to ask, what makes it that great calling? Why did we choose this often “unpleasant” job?

Unlike in the days of Atticus Finch, there now seems to be a nearly limitless number of ways to practice law: big firms, small firms, small town practice, big city practice, public interest law firms, government, private business – the list is endless.

Looking back, it seems my own practice covered almost all of that list, and I suspect many others of my generation can look back after four decades and say the same. From that perspective, it is an interesting task to think about what really set practicing law apart. What, in retrospect, was meaningful?

Of course, paying clients are spectacular and that work is rewarding in far more than just the dollars. The suggestion of law school that we separate our private feelings from our client’s cause now seems like professorial mythology. We lose sleep over the years precisely because we do care about those we represent.

Still, we often forget, in the necessity of the moment, that nonpaying clients too can be rewarding in ways unrelated to the dollar paid, and their causes may equally become our passion.

Volunteering as a lawyer in the courtroom has been a staple of practice in Wisconsin for as long as there have been courtrooms. It provides an opportunity not simply to meet some present-day “pro bono commitment,” but is an extraordinary chance to be that lawyer we aspired to the day before we entered law school.

I remember coming to Wisconsin in 1987, and having the chutzpah to call Federal District Court Judge Barbara Crabb out of the blue to ask if she or Judge John Shabaz had any cases that needed a volunteer lawyer. They obliged, as did other courts, and our firm actively used those cases as a crucible for young attorneys.

When younger associates would ask if those cases counted toward “billable hours,” we pointedly said, “Absolutely not.” An attorney’s commitment to help others was an obligation we undertook as professionals, not a substitute for paying the bills.

One just does not know where ‘volunteering’ may lead, except that it will lead to interesting and boring, challenging and mundane, life-affirming and life-threatening representations. These days we tend to forget the benefits such choices will provide us as attorneys and focus, instead, on a pro bono ‘commitment’ or other rule-based result.

That is unfortunate, because the real benefits of such volunteer commitments are much deeper. Perhaps it is the opportunity for a young attorney to learn the skills of courtroom or perhaps it’s the pain of losing and lessons that will give you for a lifetime.

When I was with a very big law firm, I would tell young attorneys that they needed to take public defender criminal cases so they could know what it felt like to stand side-by-side with their client as the jury returned knowing the verdict might bring a long jail sentence – an end to someone’s freedom.

If you could do that, I would say, then you can learn true perspective.

Later, when you anxiously waited for a verdict in a case about money, or when you advised a client to settle or go to trial, such moments would be far less weighty, and you would be forever a better lawyer and better counselor.

These are the lessons one takes from volunteering.

There is a broad benefit to a Bar committed to volunteering as a matter of ethics, morality, and humility rather than one committed to activities as a result of a mandate or rule. By active volunteer representation, the public and fellow members of the Bar learn the true role of lawyers is often to do the “unpleasant job” on behalf of our system.

That commitment is both individually rewarding to the attorney and immeasurably rewarding to our civil society. As the Attorneys Oath we all took reminds us, “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed …,” SCR 40.15. Or, as Atticus Finch reminded Scout (by way of Harper Lee):

… simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down.

This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Litigation Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Litigation Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.