What Is Pro Bono?

Definition & Examples of Pro Bono?

Insurance agent meeting with prospective customer
••• PhotoAlto/Eric Audras/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

Pro bono refers to donating professional work for the public good, and it's often linked with legal work.

Find out more about what pro bono work entails in the legal profession.

What Is Pro Bono?

The term pro bono comes from the Latin phrase pro bono publico, which translates to "for the public good." It usually describes legal services performed free of charge or at reduced fees for those who need it. Pro bono cases and services leverage the skills of legal professionals to help those who are unable to afford lawyers.

The need for pro bono work is evident: In 2017, 86% of low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help for civil legal problems.

How Do Pro Bono Legal Services Work?

All state and local bar associations have pro bono committees where attorneys can volunteer their time. Pro bono services help marginalized communities and underserved populations that are often denied access to justice due to lack of income.

Lawyers might also privately accept cases pro bono, meaning that they won't charge a client in need for their services, or they'll accept a significantly lower fee. They might also provide legal assistance or financial resources to organizations that promote social causes, such as preventing domestic violence or even ecological issues. In addition, lawyers can devote time and effort to improving or amending the law or the legal system, such as through lobbying.

There are a number of public interest law organizations that provide pro bono or low-cost legal aid to groups and individuals in different areas of law. For example, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice provides legal services aimed at improving welfare programs. Others include the Children's Defense Fund, Farmers Legal Action Group, National Veterans Legal Services Program, National Senior Citizens Law Center, the National Health Law Program, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The United States Department of Justice publishes a list of pro bono legal service providers by state.

Pro Bono Requirements for Lawyers

Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those who are unable to pay. Under the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rule 6.1, a lawyer should aspire to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year.

Some law firms and local bar associations might recommend fewer or more hours of pro bono service. Many law firms and paralegal associations recommend that paralegals also perform a certain number of pro bono hours per year.

Most state bars impose their own requirements, but most of them refer to pro bono work after becoming licensed. New York is the only state in the U.S. that requires people to perform pro bono services in order to be admitted to the bar and become licensed to practice law. In 2012, New York began requiring law students to complete 50 hours of pro bono legal services in order to even fill out an application for bar admission. Other states have proposed such measures, but none have passed them.

The American Bar Association surveyed attorneys and found that 20 percent of attorneys have never provided pro bono services, citing lack of time as the biggest obstacle to offering them. However, four out of five attorneys believe that pro bono work is important.

In order to incentivize lawyers to offer pro bono services, many states have put rules in place that allow them to earn continuing legal education (CLE) credits for doing this work. For example, many states allow lawyers to earn one credit for every five hours of pro bono services they offer. Earning CLE credits is mandatory for all lawyers, but the amount of credits required varies by state, as does the number of credits earned for doing pro bono work.

Key Takeaways

  • Pro bono work is often linked with the legal profession, and it means donating legal services and resources to help those who can't afford them.
  • The term "pro bono" comes from a Latin phrase that means "for the public good."
  • The American Bar Association holds lawyers responsible for providing at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year.

Article Sources

  1. Legal Services Corporation. "Justice Gap Report." Accessed June 27, 2020.

  2. National Center for State Courts. "Legal Aid/Pro Bono Resource Guide." Accessed July 17, 2020.

  3. American Bar Association. "ABA Model Rule 6.1." Accessed June 27, 2020.

  4. American Bar Association. "Paralegals." Accessed June 27, 2020.

  5. American Bar Association. "Bar Pre-Admission Pro Bono." Accessed July 17, 2020.

  6. American Bar Association. "New Comprehensive ABA Report Details Lawyer Involvement in Providing Pro Bono Services." Accessed July 17, 2020.

  7. American Bar Association. "CLE Credit for Pro Bono." Accessed July 17, 2020.