How Pro Bono Cases Work
By Steven J. Ellison, Esq. | Legally reviewed by Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated August 19, 2022
Once you have found a pro bono attorney, forming an attorney-client relationship is an easy and straightforward process.
Many people need legal services but can't afford to pay for them. According to one report, as many as 86% of low-income Americans received no or inadequate legal help with civil legal matters in 2017. This justice gap can be narrowed, however, by lawyers who provide their services for free or at a reduced rate. This is called “pro bono" work, from the Latin phrase “pro bono publico" (for the public good).
What Are the Roots of Pro Bono Service?
Pro bono work has a long tradition in this country. In 1770, British soldiers killed five Americans in what became known as the Boston Massacre. No lawyer was willing to defend the soldiers. Although sympathetic to the American cause, John Adams (later the second American president) agreed to represent them for free. He won the case. By the time America declared its independence in 1776, pro bono service was considered an accepted practice by the American legal profession.
What Type of Legal Issue Qualifies for Pro Bono Representation?
Not every legal matter is considered appropriate for pro bono representation. Lawyers typically choose only those cases that serve the public good. That includes, among other areas of law:
- Family law
- Children's issues
- Consumer fraud
- Environmental law
- Criminal defense
- Elder law
- Death penalty appeals
Many lawyers will also take cases on behalf of members of underserved communities, religious groups, and nonprofit organizations.
Pro Bono Requirements for Lawyers
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), when society gives someone the privilege of practicing law, they accept the responsibility to promote justice and make justice equally accessible. That includes making legal services available to people who may not be able to afford them. Rule 6.1 of the ABA's Model Rules of Professional Conduct says that lawyers should aspire to provide 50 hours of pro bono service each year. Many states have adopted this rule for the lawyers who practice within them.
Lawyers Benefit From Pro Bono Work
You shouldn't feel guilty about seeking pro bono services. Lawyers actually benefit from providing free legal aid to those in need:
- New lawyers get into court and have the chance to handle their own cases (typically with some mentoring)
- Lawyers get to serve and promote causes that may be dear to them
- They get the chance to explore and develop knowledge and skills in new areas of law
- Lawyers get to know the judges they appear before
- Some states allow for continuing legal education credits for approved pro bono work
How Do I Find a Pro Bono Lawyer?
There are a number of ways to find a pro bono attorney. You can start with a simple internet search.
FindLaw has resources for people interested in seeking pro bono legal representation.
Legal Services Corporation
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a nonprofit corporation formed by Congress in 1974, is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for Americans. In 2021, Congress appropriated $465 million to LSC to fund its mission.
LSC distributes this money to service organizations through a grant process. They have a searchable website of grant recipients that exist to provide pro bono legal services.
The ABA is the largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world. With more than 400,000 members, it promotes, among other things, initiatives to improve the legal system. Its mission is to serve the public and the legal profession by promoting justice, professional excellence, and respect for the law.
As part of its public service, the ABA strongly encourages its members and lawyers in general to do pro bono work. It has pro bono resources and a searchable website of organizations that provide free legal services.
In addition, each state has its own bar association. They all have pro bono committees that provide resources and pro bono opportunities for attorneys. Their websites will provide you with more information.
You can also see if the county you live in has its own bar association. Many do, and many also have pro bono committees that help connect lawyers to people in need and other resources. Again, their websites will provide you with more information.
Many law firms take great pride in their pro bono programs and encourage their lawyers and paralegals to provide free services for causes that serve the public interest. Many have pro bono directors who are great contact points. You can find these people by searching a firm's website.
Most law schools have clinics that provide legal services to people in need. Most of these clinics focus on a particular area of law, such as domestic violence or immigration. These legal clinics, which are staffed by law students who are supervised by lawyers, provide legal services free of charge. You can find contact information on a law school's website.
How Do You Hire an Attorney?
Once you have found a pro bono attorney, forming an attorney-client relationship is an easy and straightforward process. Although lawyers call them different things, (e.g., a retainer agreement, engagement letter, etc.), virtually all will provide you with a written document that outlines the terms of legal representation. Although you can retain a lawyer orally (and a court might find an attorney-client relationship exists without there being a writing), good, ethical professional practice requires a writing.
Read the letter carefully, make sure you understand it, and ask if you have any questions. Once you are satisfied and agree to the terms of representation, you sign the letter and return it to your lawyer. It's as simple as that.
What Happens When Your Legal Issue Is Resolved?
Ending an attorney-client relationship is also a straightforward process. Some lawyers simply end the relationship verbally, but most will send you a letter acknowledging that the matter is concluded, thanking you for the opportunity to have represented you, and stating that the attorney-client relationship has ended.
If your lawyer represented you in court or before a state or federal agency, there may be one more step. Your lawyer may need to file a formal notice that they no longer represent you and that any future documents should be sent directly to you.
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