What Does Pro Bono Mean?
Pro bono is an abbreviated Latin phrase used to describe when a professional offers their services for free or at a highly discounted rate.
🤔 Understanding pro bono
Pro bono is when highly trained professionals such as doctors, lawyers, or teachers volunteer their time and skills for free or at a reduced cost. They help individuals, groups, or other non-profit entities that might not otherwise be able to afford those services. It's an abbreviation of the Latin phrase "pro bono publico," which translates to, "for the public good." Pro bono work is prevalent across the legal profession. The American Bar Association encourages all lawyers to try to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services every year.
Let's say you get wrongfully evicted from your apartment, but you don't have enough money to launch a legal appeal to try and keep a roof over your head. You may qualify to receive pro bono services from a local law firm.
That means a lawyer would agree to look into your case, offer you a bit of advice, or even help to file official court proceedings on your behalf — all for free or at an incredibly reduced rate.
A pro bono lawyer is like a brave, white knight…
Legal work can be costly and difficult to obtain, and not everyone has the financial means or background to launch a legal appeal or seek advice. That's where pro bono services come to the rescue. They enable highly trained professionals to ride in and volunteer their time and skills to ensure everyone has access to competent legal support.
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What does pro bono mean?
Pro bono is short for "pro bono publico." It's a Latin phrase that essentially means, "for the common good" or "for the good of the people" when translated into English. It's frequently applied across a variety of professional industries including the educational, medical, financial, and legal sectors.
Pro bono can describe any number of professional services performed either 100% free of charge or at a reduced rate.
Pro bono work is prevalent across the American legal sector. So, why would a lawyer take on unpaid pro bono work? As the name suggests, "for the common good."
Everyone is guaranteed legal representation in court if they're accused of committing a crime – that is enshrined in the US Constitution.
But there are plenty of other situations in which an individual or a group might require legal support for a civil matter, but aren't necessarily entitled to it as a Constitutional right. The problem is, not everyone can afford professional representation or advice in those instances.
According to research from the 2017 Justice Gap Report published by the US Government's Legal Services Corporation, 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem each year.
But the US Department of Justice says that only around one in five of those households are able to gain access to government-appointed legal aid schemes based on their financial positions.
That's why a considerable proportion of law firms across the country (and around the world) offer their own pro bono programs as a form of corporate social responsibility or subscribe to more extensive pro bono networks that connect individuals or non-profit organizations with participating groups or practitioners.
The pro bono work a law firm might choose to take on will vary depending upon the issues faced by clients, as well as the type of support that a particular lawyer can provide.
Firms may offer free telephone consultations, drop-in advice sessions, or house calls in which an individual can engage one-on-one with a lawyer and get advice. Pro bono lawyers might also help individuals to file legal documentation. At the same time, other pro bono programs could see a lawyer appearing before judges to represent a client throughout court proceedings or offer private support in financial literacy.
Again, the type of work and the amount of time a firm or pro bono organization can commit varies.
It's also worth noting there are several specialist advocacy groups and pro bono networks that focus on particular skill sets or problems.
For example, some organizations devote all of their pro bono work to providing immigration services or looking into human rights cases, while others focus on specializations like housing disputes, family law, or domestic violence.
Why do lawyers do pro bono work?
Lawyers are often free to pick and choose when and why they do pro bono work. Still, the American Bar Association (ABA) offers a benchmark recommendation that all lawyers in the US should "aspire" to carry out at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services on an annual basis.
This rule is enshrined in the ABA's Model Rule 6.1, but it's essential to bear in mind that this is a suggestion rather than an enforceable law.
The ABA does offer several incentives for lawyers willing to take on more significant amounts of pro bono work, including dues waivers to those who volunteer at least 500 hours per year of their time.
Requirements vary more at the state level, and in some states, pro bono work is mandatory. For example, to be admitted to the bar in New York, lawyers must first be able to demonstrate they've undertaken at least 50 hours of pro bono work.
The ABA also asks paralegals to perform at least 24 hours of pro bono services per year – but only if it's under the supervision of an attorney or authorized by an administrative, statutory, or court authority.
Some universities require their law students to carry out pro bono legal services as a condition for graduating with a law degree.
The ABA recognizes at least 39 law schools in the US that require students to carry out clinical work or community-based volunteer work either via university-sponsored pro bono legal advice schemes or by connecting with local law firms to volunteer their time.
Do lawyers get paid for pro bono work?
Lawyers typically don't get paid anything for pro bono work — even if they end up taking on an entire court case and come away with a win. That's what separates pro bono work from lawyers that work on contingency (or "no win, no fee") lawyers.
Pro bono legal assistance is considered a charitable service, and so clients aren't expected to pay pro bono lawyers for their time or professional services.
On some occasions, pro bono work that a lawyer carries out could end up producing additional paid work. For example, a non-profit organization might choose to accept pro bono advice from a law firm before asking the same firm to carry out further legal work that goes above and beyond its typical pro bono offerings.
However, lawyers usually don't agree to take on pro bono work with the expectation of receiving any significant income as a result of that work.
How do I get a pro bono lawyer?
If you need a pro bono lawyer, there are multiple resources you can look to find support. Because the ABA encourages all lawyers to carry out annual pro bono work, many law firms have their own in-house pro bono programs.
That's why it's worth searching for local, regional, or even national law firms and getting in touch with them to learn more about any charitable services they offer.
There are also many pro bono advocate groups across the country that are recognized by the ABA. Many of these organizations have trained in-house lawyers that offer free, unpaid advice or legal assistance, while others engage with local law firms to connect pro bono lawyers with individuals or non-profit groups in need.
Pro bono work is normally reserved for low-income and median-income households or charitable groups. The exact requirements you'll need to fulfill to qualify for pro bono support vary by state and organization. Still, you’ll generally get asked to prove in some way that you’re genuinely unable to pay for legal assistance.
For example, you may be required to provide proof of income, debt, or child support as part of any application for free legal support before you're able to sit down with a pro bono lawyer.
Because these requirements are different based on states and the specific firm, it's best to get in touch with area advocacy groups or law firms to figure out how to demonstrate your eligibility for pro bono work.
Are pro bono lawyers good?
Pro bono lawyers can be just as good as any other lawyer. Because all lawyers are actively encouraged by the ABA to carry out pro bono services as part of a professional obligation, that means pro bono lawyers often split their time between unpaid voluntary work and successful private practices.
As a professional courtesy, you should expect lawyers to put just as much time and energy into pro bono work as you would expect them to apply towards paid employment. After all, even private firms have a reputation to uphold, and pro bono work is an ethical prerogative that lawyers commit to as an act of social responsibility.
That being said, if you do require pro bono support, it’s always worth shopping around before you commit to a particular lawyer. After all, different lawyers have different strengths and specialties, and no two cases are 100% alike. You should take your time, carefully weigh your options, and ask lots of questions to ensure that you’re able to find the best possible lawyer to take on your case.
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