The Definition of Pro Bono in Law
Pro bono legal services are a requirement of many bar associations
"Pro bono publico" is a Latin phrase that's typically shortened to "pro bono" when it's used in the legal profession. It means “for the good of the people," and it refers to legal services performed free of charge or at reduced fees for the public good.
The need for legal services among the poor is overwhelming, according to an American Bar Association study. At least 40 percent of low and moderate-income households experience a legal problem each year, yet studies show that the collective civil legal aid effort meets only about 20 percent of the needs of these low-income people.
Pro bono cases and services leverage the skills of legal professionals to help those who are unable to afford lawyers.
Who Receives Help?
Pro bono services help marginalized communities and underserved populations that are often denied access to justice due to lack of income. These often include children and the elderly.
A lawyer might also privately accept a case “pro bono,” meaning that she won't charge a client in need for her services, or she'll accept a significantly lower fee. She might also provide legal assistance to certain organizations that promote social causes, such as preventing domestic violence or even ecological issues.
She might devote time and effort to improving or amending the law or the legal system, such as through lobbying. She can contribute financial resources to organizations that provide free or reduced-fee legal services to clients of limited means.
Pro Bono Requirements for Lawyers
Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those who are unable to pay. Under American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rule 6.1, a lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year. The ABA offers dues waivers to certain senior and inactive members of the bar who volunteer at least 500 hours of their time.
Most state bars impose their own requirements and many mirror ABA Rule 6.1. The Chief Judge of New York began requiring 50 hours per year for applicants hoping to be admitted to the bar in 2015 or later. New York attorneys must also report their pro bono work and contributions. In Minnesota, the 50 hours is more of a strong suggestion.
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.
Pro Bono Opportunities
All state and local bar associations have pro bono committees where attorneys can volunteer their time. You might also provide help through legal aid services structured to offer representation for free or on sliding fee scales for those who couldn't afford help otherwise.
But legal aid services can vary as to the areas of law they address, so you might not find your niche with this type of program. For example, you might specialize in family law but be limited to only handling cases where domestic violence is an issue, not general divorces.
Depending on your area of expertise, you might want to reach out to the American Bar Association's Volunteer Legal Project. It offers help across more diverse specialties such as bankruptcy, estate planning, guardianship, custody, and adoptions.
The Military Pro Bono Project helps active duty service members. ABA International Activities and Programs and the International Legal Resource Center provide international opportunities if you would like to render assistance to the underprivileged in other countries.