The Definition of Pro Bono in Law
Every day, people commit crimes. On the other hand, some fall victim of crimes or false accusations. No matter the situation, people need legal services daily.
However, not everyone can afford to pay lawyers. Many people end up on the side of injustice just because they’re poor.
That’s why pro bono work is vital in the legal profession.
This practice is common with lawyers.
In fact, 55% of attorneys provided pro bono services in 2017, according to the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation.
WHAT IS PRO BONO?
Pro bono is the short version of the Latin phrase pro bono publico. This phrase means “for the public good.”
In simple terms, pro bono work is the service a professional renders to an individual without any compensation before or after offering the service.
Even though pro bono is applicable to all professions, the term is popularly used in the legal profession.
Offering pro bono legal services starts from the time an individual is a law student to when a lawyer has been called to bar and is practicing.
The American Bar Association’s Model Rule 6.1 states that every lawyer “has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.”
According to the American Bar Association:
“pro bono legal services are personally performed, without charge or expectation of fee, to persons of limited means or organizations that serve persons of limited means.”
From this definition, free legal service offered with the aim of turning the client into a paying client in the future is not a pro bono service.
Likewise, a legal service carried out with an expectation to get paid at the beginning but changing your mind later can’t be classified as pro bono.
Another exception is legal services provided to friends and family as a favor.
Often, the people concerned are able to pay and this is not regarded as pro bono work.
In most cases, there’s no fixed number of hours that a lawyer must use for pro bono services.
There are many suggestions though.
For example, the American Bar Association recommends that every lawyer should offer at least 50 hours of pro bono services annually.
There are also different recommendations of the same, higher, or lower number of hours in different state bars.
Another way a lawyer can contribute to the pro bono work is to support lawyers or legal clinics that offer these services.
The reality in many big firms is that most lawyers fail to do pro bono work.
And for those that do, they spend far less than the recommended number of hours yearly.
One of the reasons for this is that most of the big law firms make no provision for pro bono work.
In cases where there’s a provision for it, associates are not encouraged to do pro bono work as they want to rack up the number of their billed hours as high as possible.
This means as lawyers are trying to bill as many hours as possible to get promoted and go up the ladder in their law firms, the public good is often neglected.
According to a survey of 47,000 attorneys in 24 states by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, almost 1 out of 5 attorneys had never done pro bono work of any kind.
According to attorneys, the top 3 sources of discouragement are lack of time, personal or family obligations, and lack of skills or experience.
PRO BONO WORK AS A LAW STUDENT
Pro bono services should begin while an individual is studying law.
Many schools have different policies and requirements regarding the amount of pro bono work a student should engage in.
A requirement for a law student doing pro bono legal services is that they have to do it under the supervision of an attorney.
This means an attorney would guide and evaluate the student.
They’ll also review the student’s work before it’s provided to a client.
Likewise, pro bono work for a law student is usually done during the academic year.
Different states have different requirements of pro bono hours before a graduate law student is called to bar.
Some states require a number of pro bono hours while some have no requirements regarding pro bono work.
For instance, the New York State Court requires applicants into the New York State bar to have completed 50 hours of pro bono work.
When law students get engaged in pro bono work, they’re more likely to provide these services when they graduate and become practicing lawyers.
PRO BONO WORK IN LAW FIRMS
Law students are expected to carry out pro bono work before they complete their studies and are called to the bar.
This practice is expected to continue when a lawyer is called to bar.
Many lawyers seek to work in law firms after their graduation to gain more experience and consequently build their legal career.
In most cases, whether a lawyer will get involved in pro bono cases may depend on the culture of their law firm.
It’s easier for a lawyer to do pro bono work if their law firm makes a provision or has a department for pro bono services.
Otherwise, it’s difficult for a lawyer to get involved in pro bono work.
If one of the main aims of a lawyer is to bill as many hours of work as possible, their last line of thought will be pro bono work.
Many new associates, especially in big law firms, go through a lot of stress for years before they can go up the ladder in their law firms.
Whether they climb up or not may also be tied to the number of hours they bill.
Therefore, many lawyers may be more focused on clients that are able to pay for legal services rather than those that are unable to pay.
In some cases, a law firm might prevent the use of the firm’s resources for pro bono cases.
Likewise, in a firm that disallows lawyers from doing pro bono services during business hours or places restrictions on the number of pro bono clients a lawyer can take, only a few lawyers will do more pro bono legal services.
However, in law firms that require lawyers to carry out a number of hours of pro bono services, lawyers will get involved more in the service.
Other activities a law firm can engage in to encourage its lawyers to do pro bono work include having a pro bono manager, having a policy that supports employee pro bono tasks, allowing pro bono work to be done during business hours, identifying and referring pro bono work to lawyers, etc.
AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION SURVEY
For pro bono services, most lawyers provide services that are related to their areas of specialization. In the American Bar Association’s survey, 69% of attorneys took a pro bono case that was within their area of expertise.
This makes sense as it’s easier to help people in an area of law that a lawyer is familiar with.
When lawyers take pro bono cases out of their area of expertise, it was usually in the area of military, immigration, housing, civil rights, and public benefits.
When lawyers took on pro bono cases, it was usually consistent with their expectations before taking the case.
71% of attorneys claimed that their pro bono cases went the way they expected it to.
The expectations are usually in the form of the time spent on the case and the complexity of the case.
In a way, their prediction is often accurate because most lawyers are doing pro bono works in their area of expertise.
NUMBER OF PRO BONO HOURS
In 2016, attorneys who did pro bono legal services spent an average of 36.9 hours.
This is far lower than the ABA’s recommendation. One of the factors responsible for this is that many lawyers fail to take on full representation of clients when they offer pro bono services.
More than half (54.6%) of attorneys only provided limited scope representation and they spent an average of 16.4 hours on each case.
Generally, attorneys who provided limited scope representation had a lower number of hours of pro bono work.
For instance, attorneys who only provided limited scope representation for pro bono work had an average of 40.1 hours of the work in 2016.
Meanwhile, attorneys who provided only full representation had an average of 81.8 hours of pro bono service in the year.
However, attorneys who combined both types of representation had the highest number of hours of pro bono work among attorneys.
These lawyers had an average of 114.2 hours of work in the year.
Added to this, 48% of attorneys did not undertake pro bono services that year. This is almost 1 out of 2 attorneys.
It shows that many lawyers would rather fill their time with paying work than working for a client who has no money.
Only 20% of attorneys provided more than 50 hours of pro bono services to clients in 2016.
This is a low portion of the members of the legal profession considering how important this step is to society.
However, when attorneys decide to take pro bono works, they usually take on cases of individuals rather than organizations. 81.3% of attorneys who take cases claim they take individual cases.
While offering pro bono legal services, lawyers carry out many tasks.
Some of these include meeting and interviewing the client, reviewing or drafting legal documents, writing letters, providing advice, speaking with other attorneys, providing full representation in court, negotiating settlements with other parties, etc.
The most common activities carried out by lawyers were providing advice to clients with 74.1% of lawyers who do pro bono work doing it.
However, a far lower number of lawyers provided full representation to their clients in court with only 29% doing it.
The most common area of law served by far in pro bono services was family law. 32% of cases with lawyers who offer full representation and 19% of those who offered limited scope representation.
Apart from this, other top areas for pro bono work were criminal, litigation, estate planning/probate, immigration, and real estate.
The thing though, is that after family law, the popularity of each area differs according to whether attorneys carry out full representation or limited scope.
ATTORNEY’S VIEW OF PRO BONO SERVICES
It is no surprise that lawyers see pro bono as an important part of the legal profession. In fact, 80.6% of attorneys believe that pro bono services are either somewhat or very important.
But despite the majority of lawyers seeing it as an important endeavor, a far lower number actually want to provide the service.
For example, only 45% claim they’re likely or very likely to carry out pro bono work in the next year while about a quarter claim they’re unlikely or very unlikely to carry out such a task.
Lawyers who participate in pro bono legal services have positive views of the service and this encourages them to do more of it.
The most popular factors that encourage lawyers to take on pro bono cases are to help people in need, fulfill ethical obligations, and as a professional duty.
The biggest motivators are the first two as lawyers feel empathetic to ensure justice is done for even people who are unable to pay legal fees.
In many of these situations, the client would have lost a valuable possession without legal representation.
Apart from motivating factors, there are also discouraging factors that reduce the number of hours attorneys are able to spend doing pro bono work.
Lack of time is the biggest discouraging factor.
There are other factors like lack of necessary skills or experience needed for the case, scheduling conflicts with potential court appearances, unrealistic expectations of clients, too costly, lack of information about opportunities, discouragement from employer/firm, etc.
What is evident from these discouraging factors is that it comes from various quarters.
Some are due to the lawyer, some client, and some the law firm.
This shows there’s still a big room for improvement in terms of getting more lawyers to get involved in pro bono legal services.
FINDING PRO BONO OPPORTUNITIES
One of the main challenges attorneys can face is finding clients for pro bono legal services.
For instance, if you don’t meet people who are unable to pay for their legal services, how do you get involved in pro bono cases?
The truth is that when there’s a will, there’s a way. Lawyers have found many ways to find pro bono clients.
There are organizations that usually handle pro bono cases and attorneys reach out to these organizations to learn of suitable cases they can take.
As a matter of fact, 45.4% of attorneys had contacted organizations regarding pro bono cases while 36.3% had contacted a legal aid or pro bono organization.
18% of lawyers had contacted their local bar association and 12.4% had contacted other organizations.
In another way, attorneys are also contacted to take on pro bono cases. This is possible for a lawyer who had taken on pro bono cases in the past or has a relationship with a pro bono organization.
47.5% of attorneys had been contacted by a legal aid or pro bono organization, 34% had been contacted by their local bar association, 29% had been contacted by their state bar association, and 21.3% had been contacted by other organizations.
With these major ways of finding pro bono cases, an attorney can find relevant cases to their expertise.
Initially, an attorney may have to reach out to some organizations to find pro bono cases. Subsequently, these organizations will usually contact the attorney when there are relevant cases.
An attorney can also visit the pro bono center page on the American Bar Association website to get more information about pro bono services.
The legal profession aims to provide justice without any sign of partiality. But often, justice can be far-fetched for people who are unable to get adequate legal representation.
This is why pro bono services are an avenue for lawyers to help people without any expectation of compensation. However, it’s too simplistic to say there’s no compensation.
The biggest compensation of pro bono work is to be able to help a person in need get the justice they deserve.
An attorney can feel satisfied that they’ve done the right thing. After all, the legal profession is not all about the amount of money you can make.
Some lawyers get more satisfaction from pro bono work than their repetitive law firm work.
In some cases, people who need pro bono services are fighting against bigger companies or entities that have enough money to bury their criminal acts.
A lawyer can ensure that the helpless individual gets justice from the bigger entities. Pro bono work starts when an individual is a student at the law school.
From here, the student can understand the importance of this practice and continue it when they get called to bar.
Pro bono service is a practice that most lawyers see as important but that many are reluctant to do. It’s a service to the good of the people that any attorney must engage in.
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