Make time for pro bono. You won’t be sorry.

By Paul D. Peterson 

It is the summer of 1992. I am an associate attorney at the firm Murnane, Conlin, White and Brant in St. Paul. Most of my practice is devoted to the defense of insurance companies and their insureds. Not long after I start at the firm, and with their encouragement, it becomes one part of my practice to volunteer at a Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) evening clinic. I like this work, in part because it is the most direct, one-on-one experience I have had thus far as a lawyer. As I walk down Cedar Street to SMRLS’s offices, I feel a sense of excitement. I have no idea of the people, issues, and questions the night will bring.

Tonight, I meet a very frail woman who appears to be in her early 80s. In speaking with her I learn she is in her early 60s. She has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and her prognosis is grim. She tells me her remaining life span will more likely be measured in months than years.

She has not been employed since her diagnosis. Despite the toll on her body, I am struck by her sharp mind and the life in her eyes. This is no quitter. Her problem tonight is disability insurance. She has it through her former job and she needs those payments for the short time she has left. But the payments aren’t coming. So she devotes what little energy she has to fighting this company. She tells me she’s spent and she can’t carry on. She is fearful of becoming homeless. For the first time since we began our conversation, her lively eyes dim.

She became my client that night, and with the help of the people at SMRLS we were able to get her some short-term relief and some additional concessions from her landlord. For the next six to eight weeks, I worked to figure out what was going on with this disability insurance. Looking back, it was not heavy-duty legal work. Calls and letters we do every day. I think maybe the best work I did was letting her know I cared. We got the situation fixed. We stayed in touch. About a year later, I learned she passed.

Representing her proved so professionally satisfying that she’s one of the reasons I decided to represent individuals and families.

Fast forward to the summer of 2022. (Do not do the math, please.) I am filling out my attorney registration forms and, although I knew it was coming, it is the first time I see a line for reporting of pro bono hours. There is no requirement of pro bono, but it is an aspirational goal for all attorneys. I am surprised a bit by the feeling I had—like I feel when I see the “Your Speed” sign flashing. The form helped me to pause and reassess. What speed am I going right now?

Choose to serve

I got my start with volunteering at SMRLS, a great organization and one of many to assist volunteer lawyers with support and advice, but there are other opportunities to serve. If you have an interest in expanding your pro bono opportunities, ProJusticeMN (www.projusticemn.org) and the Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN) are also great resources to match your skills with the overwhelming needs that our in our community. Finally, you can contact MSBA Access to Justice Director Katy Drahos (kdrahos@mnbars.org). Katy and her colleague, Sarah Etheridge, are excellent at helping us help others.

All efforts that we can give, great and small, will lessen those needs. If we all could up our pro bono game just a little—and get a larger percentage of lawyers volunteering—we will be amazed at the results. The rule of law and a strong community depend on access to justice for all. Pro bono work improves our society. Let’s do this. 


Paul D. Peterson represents families in personal a and wrongful death cases. His office is in Woodbury and he is licensed in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. He is the proud papa of four above-average children and one outstanding dog.