There are many people who would like to do pro bono, but then have excuses at the ready for why it’s not the right time or opportunity. Sometimes, even when our hearts are in the right place, we need to change our way of thinking to spur a change in action.
At an attorney all-hands meeting in October 2018, Comcast NBCUniversal** (“Comcast”) tackled head-on the issue of incentivizing pro bono engagement. The pro bono session at the offsite meeting, which assembled approximately 250 attorneys from across Comcast’s global offices, featured a discussion about Comcast’s pro bono program and explored different ways to elevate pro bono engagement.
Public expressions of pro bono support from the executive management is often an effective way to motivate pro bono engagement. At the Comcast meeting, the company’s general counsel, Arthur Block, announced that Comcast had joined the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® initiative, pledging to encourage at least half of their legal staff to support and participate in pro bono service. For those on the fence about participating, it helps to know that leadership is on board and values the use of company time for pro bono.
Several leaders in the legal department shared their personal experiences with pro bono work, which included overturning the conviction of a wrongfully accused client and sharing his first night of freedom, and obtaining a green card for a child who fled persecution. This kind of storytelling has the power to shape decision-making by inspiring and illustrating the impact an individual can make through pro bono service.
Comcast also organized a panel discussion to talk about the importance of pro bono for serving communities in need and the barriers to pro bono service. One of the panelists, Syon Bhanot, a behavioral economics professor, shared his research on why people do pro bono and how to get people to do more of it. Bhanot talked about a common impediment to volunteering called “present bias,” in which individuals often feel they are too busy at any given moment to take on a pro bono project. To overcome this bias, Bhanot’s tip is to afford people the opportunity to sign up for a pro bono opportunity far into the future and encourage them to block it off on their calendar. In behavioral economics terms, carving out time for future engagement is a “commitment device” that helps to modify incentives and achieve change in behavior.
Bhanot also addressed the “free-rider temptation.” Some people may think that their participation in pro bono is unnecessary because enough of their colleagues are doing pro bono. To counteract this phenomenon, Bhanot suggests leveraging reputation by playing into the human desire to demonstrate “prosocial” behavior that benefits others. Just as giving out “I voted” stickers can motivate citizens to cast their ballots on Election Day, handing out “I did pro bono” buttons or ribbons can create the prosocial incentive to engage.
Another challenge Bhanot discussed is the problem of “inattention,” which occurs when people do not pay heed to an issue despite its critical importance. The behavioral economics solution is to increase the salience and visibility of the problem so that it cannot be ignored. Bhanot discussed an example of an intervention in a sick population in Kenya. Despite serious illness, the community was not complying with taking their life-saving medications. Researchers devised a mobile phone app that sent text messages to patients reminding them to take their medicines. If the patients did not respond that they had taken their medicine, then the intervention escalated and they received a phone call reminding them of the benefits of taking the medicine. This intervention significantly lowered the rate of medication noncompliance and saved lives.
Translating this example to the pro bono context, Bhanot encouraged companies and law firms to make it harder for volunteers to ignore the need for legal services by shining more light on the lack of legal services for low-income communities. As part of the panel discussion, Eve Runyon, the President and CEO of Pro Bono Institute, discussed the need for pro bono legal services to close the justice gap. Runyon shared some of the findings from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) June 2017 report, including that more than 60 million Americans have family incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty line, and that more than 86% of the civil legal problems reported by these low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help. Moreover, in 2017, low-income Americans approached LSC-funded legal aid organizations with approximately 1.7 million legal problems, more than half of which were turned away due to lack of resources. Knowing these facts about the scope of the unmet need for legal services increases the likelihood that pro bono volunteers will sign up to help.
One additional way to “nudge” behavior to improve pro bono engagement levels is to help potential volunteers reconnect with their passion. Bhanot discussed how many attorneys went to law school because they wanted to help people, but their day-to-day legal practice may feel removed from this goal. By tapping into and reminding volunteers of the passion that ignited their legal studies long ago, they are more likely to seek out opportunities to help others. Sharing stories of how pro bono volunteers made a difference in their work is an effective and visceral way to remind people how they can help.
To learn more about how to use behavioral science to encourage pro bono engagement, join us at PBI’s 2019 Annual Conference, where Professor Bhanot will be speaking on motivating pro bono engagement.
To learn more about how all-hands days can have a positive impact on your company’s pro bono program, contact CPBO at email@example.com. For more information about the Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® initiative, click here.
*denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
**denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory