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Bar News - August 13, 2010

New Lawyers Column: Time Is Always Money?


Adam Hescock
For many reading this article, a big part of practicing law is retaining clients and collecting money. We all have bills to pay, bills that probably haven’t gone away during the economic downturn.

So what do you do when you have fewer billable hours and the possibility of more time on your hands?

I recently came across an article by Charles Eisenstein called, Money: a New Beginning, in which he discusses the importance of gifts and other barter exchanges to maintain and strengthen communities. He describes how the current economic system discourages gift-giving and instead encourages buying and selling goods and services that were once exchanged freely.

This is not a new observation, of course. Despite our instinct for altruism, we cannot forget that "time is money" and there is no such thing as a "free lunch." However, Eisenstein argues that this "commodification" of goods and services not only weakens ties in a community, but also makes individuals less eager to help each other out.

Unlike conventional money exchanges, gifts and other voluntary exchanges create strong ties within a community. The more gifts that are given, the more ties are created. When money is taken out of the equation, the community becomes closer and the individuals more willing to help each other out.

Building community through acts of service and gifts of time is nothing new to the legal world. Attorneys have long been helping out individuals and companies through pro bono work that is by definition "for the public good." Whether it is helping out non-profits and other such organizations, or providing legal services to low-income individuals, attorneys have helped to keep their communities strong through voluntary service. Everyone would probably agree that pro bono work is a good thing, but how can you justify giving away your time when "time is money" and you still have those pesky bills to pay?

Eisenstein says giving the gift of time creates a bond between people that is typically absent in a money exchange. Granted, creating this kind of bond doesn’t pay the mortgage. However, giving your time to someone who cannot afford to hire you may create an opportunity. You have helped not only this one person, but probably other people in his/her family or social network as well. This client may say good things about you; your reputation may grow, along with your reach within the community.

Why not create some community bonds through gifts of your time—especially if you have more time on your hands these days?

I was recently talking about how veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will likely affect my practice as a public defender—as well as in civil practice areas such as family law. During this discussion, former Grafton County Attorney Rick St. Hilaire mentioned his involvement with the American Bar Association’s Military Pro Bono Project. According to the ABA, this project "connects active-duty military personnel and their families to free legal assistance for civil legal issues beyond the scope of services provided by a military legal assistance office."

Donating time to causes like the Military Pro Bono Project continues the long tradition of New Hampshire attorneys performing work "for the public good," and at the same time, creates an opportunity for a closer-knit community, creating the bonds that Eisenstein describes. In fact, this project promotes exactly what Eisenstein is talking about. What better opportunity can you ask for by which to create community than giving away your time?

I have seen Eisenstein’s "gift economy" work in real life. A few months ago I ran into a client at a local thrift store while I was donating clothing and some household items. I assumed that she was finishing up some community service and asked her how it was going. With a bit of pride in her voice, she told me that she was actually working at the thrift store because she had done such a good job during her recent community service.

Just a small example of how giving your time can lead to greater opportunities….

Adam Hescock has been a NH Public Defender since 2007 and has been on the NHBA New Lawyers Committee since 2009.

Jay Buckey, who assisted with this article, is a Vermont Law School student (class of 2011), and a summer intern for the NH Public Defender’s office in Orford, NH.

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