Why Pro Bono Work Is Essential to a Successful Legal Career

Why Pro Bono Work Is Essential to a Successful Legal Career was originally published on Vault.

Sonja Sahlsten and Pejmon Pashai are associates at Finnegan in Washington, DC. In addition to their patent law practice, Sonja and Pejmon devote significant time to pro bono and have found the work challenging and fulfilling. Their pro bono work has given them opportunities to develop their legal skills and confidence, which has helped advance their careers.

Finnegan offers a range of civil and criminal pro bono opportunities across its offices. Sonja focuses her pro bono practice on criminal resentencing, including clemency and juvenile resentencing cases. Pejmon has worked on pro bono landlord tenant cases, which include proceedings before the small claims court.

Pro bono presents opportunities to learn new areas of the law and challenges you to take greater responsibility.

Sonja: My billable practice is focused on patent litigation covering a range of technologies. Through my pro bono work, I have learned the nuances of sentencing law. My first foray was into federal sentencing through my work on a clemency case. More recently, I have focused on juvenile resentencing cases under DC’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, which provides an opportunity for a sentence reduction for people who committed their crimes as juveniles, have served more than 15 years, and do not pose a danger to the community. Learning an entirely new substantive area of law has given me the confidence to know that I can handle cases beyond my legal and technical niche. Pro bono cases also allow junior attorneys to take the lead role on a case. In my patent cases, most of the important decisions are made by the partners. My pro bono cases have given me the opportunity to lead cases, develop the strategy, and make important decisions at a much earlier stage of my career.

Pejmon: At first, I was apprehensive about stepping outside of my legal “comfort zone” and taking point on a case that could drastically affect my client’s quality of life. Being the primary problem solver in a case is not my typical role as a junior associate. But I knew that my client was counting on me and that I had to deliver, which meant taking the frantic phone calls on a Sunday night when my client’s laundry room nearly caught fire or when her building became an unabated rat den. It also meant scouring the courthouse to find an opposing counsel who would not return my calls so that I could get a joint filing docketed on time. Pro bono work is more than just learning the substantive body of law, or understanding the procedural quirks of the jurisdiction; for junior attorneys, it cultivates a professional maturity that can otherwise take years to earn.

Pro bono helps develop skills that translate to your billable practice.

Pejmon: I recall sitting on the courtroom’s benches during my first in-person hearing and anxiously searching the internet for: “Which side do Plaintiffs stand in a Courtroom?” Although green at first, by the end of that case, I learned exactly where to go and what to say and, on occasion, could draw a confirmatory smile from the presiding judge. Skills have a knack for sneaking their way into your life and taking hold. The one I struggled with most was managing my client’s expectations. In landlord tenant cases, clients are dealing with issues that affect their lives daily and can make them feel completely unheard by their landlords, which is understandably frustrating. But that can also leave them vulnerable to unrealistic expectations. Pushing back on my client’s expectations was awkward at first, but it was necessary to secure the best outcome for my client. This dynamic is not exclusively relegated to pro bono matters but can peak its head in billable matters, albeit for other underlying reasons. Nonetheless, this highlights a great example of how pro bono work can provide a training ground for incorporating important skills into an attorney’s billable matters.

Sonja: Pro bono has provided a lot of the big “firsts” of my career. The first time I spoke in court was in a pro bono case. The first time I was entirely responsible for drafting a motion was in a pro bono case.  Last month, I did the first closing argument of my career at a resentencing hearing. Developing these oral advocacy skills in my pro bono cases has given me the confidence to ask and be prepared to argue motions in my patent cases.

Pro bono allows you to use your talents to provide high-quality legal services to those in need.

Pejmon: My pro bono work has taught me that the legal system can provide real results for members of the community, but, at times, can be inaccessible to those who need it most. Admittedly, even I had trouble navigating some of the procedural complexities in my case’s jurisdiction. This newly found understanding has instilled in me a sense of duty to use my skills and experience to help members of my community. It has been truly rewarding to exceed my client’s expectations and play a small role in helping improve their quality of life.

Sonja: Through my resentencing work, I have seen restorative justice in action and witnessed the legal system grant second chances to deserving individuals. I keep in touch with my former clients who have returned home and am inspired by the positive contributions they have made to their communities. Best of all, my pro bono practice allows me to use my skills to help people in need. I never appreciated how impactful this was until an experience I had in one of my resentencing cases. I brought a draft of the motion for sentence reduction with me during a legal visit so that my client could review and provide input on the draft. When he read it, he was overcome with emotion that someone would advocate that vociferously on his behalf. There is no greater way than pro bono to put your time and talents to use in the service of others.

Sonja Sahlsten focuses on patent litigation before U.S. district courts and the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC). A former clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Sonja also focuses on patent appeals. She has a technical background in mechanical engineering, with experience in medical device, industrial manufacturing technologies, and renewable energy.

Pejmon Pashai concentrates his practice primarily on patent litigation, specifically Abbreviated New Drug Application (ANDA) challenges for brand pharmaceutical manufacturers. His technical experience in the biophysiology field predominantly concerns arterial chemoreception.

This is a sponsored post by Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner. To view the firm’s full profile, click here.

By Sonja Sahlsten and Pejmon Pashai—Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP - Vault
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