Rethinking How to Promote Pro Bono in Law Schools

By Kiva Keane Zytnick

This article originally appeared in The National Association for Law Placement Bulletin, January, 2021, titled: From Persuasion to Personality Science: Rethinking How to Promote Pro Bono in Law Schools

“How can I persuade more law students to do pro bono?” I asked myself when I first began directing the Pro Bono Program at The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law. I thought about how to communicate all the reasons why law students should do pro bono work. I was a cheerleader: “It’s simply the right thing to do! There’s an access to justice crisis! The law school mission! It’s your professional responsibility! Networking! Hands-on experience!

Turns out, that was not the best approach.

Why Persuasion Isn’t the Most Effective Strategy to Engage Law Students in Pro Bono

Fast forward to January 2020 as I listened to Dr. Larry Richard (see Resources: Blog) talk about “The Social Science of Doing Good” (see Resources: Social Science) and deliver one “aha!” moment after another. Dr. Richard is a leading expert on the psychology of lawyer behavior and has spent years studying what kinds of people are drawn to the legal profession. I’ve participated in two discussions featuring Dr. Richard since then and each time his research and advice have given me more clarity about how I should approach CUA Law’s Pro Bono Program and our law students. This article will convey some of my takeaways about how law school professionals can better engage law students in pro bono (even during a pandemic) by working with, not against, their particular personality traits.

The first thing to understand is that people who become lawyers tend to be outliers. I know — eye roll, lawyers think they are so special — but personality-wise, it’s true! No other profession scores outside the norm in so many ways. Using the Caliper Profile, Dr. Richard has identified seven ways many lawyer personalities (and by extension, law student personalities) differ from the average person:

  1. High Autonomy. Lawyers do not like others telling them what to do.
  2. High Abstract Reasoning. Lawyers like analyzing problems and facing intellectual challenges. That also means that when receiving advice, lawyers are more likely to argue, scrutinize, and disagree with what they are being told.
  3. High Urgency. Lawyers are impatient. They want to be where they are going, not where they are right now.
  4. Low Resilience. Lawyers tend to feel wounded when they are rejected, which means that advice can feel off-putting or make them defensive.
  5. High Skepticism. Lawyers tend to be really good at looking for problems. That’s part of what makes them great lawyers, and it is a skill that is taught and emphasized perhaps above all others in law school. Unfortunately, in many other respects, skepticism is the enemy. High skepticism relates to high pessimism, which is also detrimental to resilience. Skepticism also undercuts relationships, which are necessary for basically every other aspect of success and happiness.
  6. Low Sociability. Related to skepticism and resilience, lawyers are less inclined to initiate connections with other people. They tend to be more private, guarded, and keep relationships on a cerebral level rather than an emotional level.
  7. Low Cognitive Empathy. Lawyers (particularly younger lawyers, as this is a trait that is dropping as Millennials and Gen Z enter the profession) are less skilled at being able to take the perspective of another person.

What this means for law school professionals directing pro bono programs is that many of our go-to strategies to engage law students in pro bono are working against law students’ innate personalities. Telling students why they should do pro bono? Bad strategy. Incentivizing students to do pro bono? Bad strategy. In fact, the whole mindset of convincing law students to do pro bono is unhelpful.

Using Psychological Strategies To Increase Law Student Pro Bono Engagement

Fortunately, in addition to identifying strategies that are less likely to be successful, social science also provides insights into ways law students may be more receptive to engaging in pro bono.

  • Role Modeling. Law students are more likely to engage in pro bono activities if people in formal leadership positions at their law school are engaging in pro bono. Law students look at leaders they admire and respect, such as professors and deans, to see if they make time for pro bono. To that end, it is critical to the success of pro bono programs to encourage and spotlight the pro bono efforts of those in leadership positions at the law school. Conversely, role models who do not prioritize pro bono can have a detrimental impact on a pro bono program. A culture of pro bono at all levels at the law school will make a big difference on student participation.
  • Social Proof. (Also known as “the bandwagon effect” or simply “peer pressure.”) Law students are more likely to engage in pro bono if they see their peers volunteering their time and legal talent. This is especially true for 1Ls— when suffering from uncertainty, humans are inclined to look to the behavior of their peers to figure out what they should be doing. Make sure students know about the good works their law student peers are doing and have done in the past. Even if it is not conscious, students will think “people like me do this, I should too.” FOMO (fear of missing out) can be a big motivator for law students. What is not motivating is pointing out how they are falling short— don’t say something like, “only 10% of our students are doing pro bono, c’mon you have to do better!”
  • Tell Stories. Humans are hardwired to learn through stories, so connect to the power of role modeling and social proof by telling stories about law school leaders and peers making a difference with pro bono. Using stories to share how pro bono at your law school has helped people also allows students to meaningfully understand why they should participate too.
  • Provide Experiences. Training and other behavioral simulations help shape the identity of individuals. When law students practice certain skills, it increases the likelihood they will internalize it and tell themselves, “I am the type of person who does pro bono.” Think about partnering with law school clinics and local legal service organizations to provide these experiences. For example, at CUA Law we partnered with our on-campus legal clinic faculty for a “Pro Bono Orientation” that included role-playing exercises about how to conduct an intake interview.
  • Build on Past Behavior. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Anecdotally, many of us know that oncea law student begins doing pro bono, they are more likely to continue. Identifying students who have a history of volunteerism prior to law school and connecting their previous experiences with pro bono opportunities available to them as law students is a good use of your time and resources. Remind them that they are “the type of person who does pro bono.”
  • Generate Positive Emotions. When people are in a good mood they are more likely to exhibit pro-social behavior, such as helping others. Positive emotions can be generated by being in a “transcendent” emotional state like awe, wonder, admiration, inspiration, veneration, or reverence. Connecting with others, giving, helping, and expressing gratitude also all generate positive emotions and put people in a mindset of selflessness, making them more likely to volunteer. There are lots of ways you could try to “prime the pump” and trigger positive emotions, putting your students in a receptive mindset before a pro bono pitch. Perhaps you could show students an act of goodness in a video clip, or have them take a moment to share something they are grateful for, or ask them to turn to the person sitting next to them and say something kind. Good food helps too (as every law school professional knows), and even something as small asking students to help pass out plates generates positive emotions.
  • Restore Disrupted Needs. People have a harder time satisfying the three basic human needs — predictability, control, and human connection— in times of stress and uncertainty. These needs are especially disrupted right now in the midst of a global pandemic and political upheaval, but law school produces stress and uncertainty uncertainty in the best of years. Helping students restore these needs will put them in a better mindset to take on pro bono work. For example, you can reinforce predictability by creating clear, precise goals and expectations for your pro bono program. You can help students cultivate a sense of control by focusing on what they have discretion over and giving them a set of choices on how to participate. Most importantly, you can foster social connections with your students through listening to them, thanking them, being authentic with them— and, of course, through the pro bono work itself.

In short, instead of telling students why they should do pro bono, focus on creating a law school culture where pro bono is not just something that they do, it is part of who they are and the community they belong to. The more people at the law school who engage in pro bono, from 1Ls to the Dean, the easier and more effective this will be. Allow students to feel the
impact of pro bono through stories and experiences. And don’t forget that law students are humans, and humans struggle in times of stress and uncertainty. Generating positive emotions and helping restore their sense of predictability, control, and social connection will help them be in a better place to give of themselves to others.

Kiva K. Zytnick ([email protected]) is Associate Director, Pro Bono Program and Public Interest Law for the Office of Career and Professional Development at The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law.