Pro Bono Explained

Almost everyone could use the help of a lawyer at some point in their life. Unfortunately, not everyone has the means to get that help. That's where pro bono comes in. Attorneys will sometimes take a case without charging a legal fee. This is called pro bono work. But many people have questions. Is pro bono too good to be true? And if lawyers really do sometimes offer free legal services, how do you get it? This article answers common questions and concerns about pro bono representation.

The Definition of Pro Bono

"Pro bono" is a Latin phrase that means "for good." As the term suggests, attorneys do pro bono work not to make money, but to accomplish a public benefit to individuals and communities who otherwise would not have legal help. It is only pro bono work if done without charging any legal fees.

Pro bono work can take many forms. Some law firms may help with disaster relief. Others may focus on helping veterans or families with special needs. Some lawyers take on social issues such as help for victims of domestic violence or housing matters for low income populations. There are no cases or causes that are beyond the scope of pro bono work. It is NOT pro bono if the attorney representing you is charging a legal fee.

Pro Bono Really Is Free

The saying "there's no such thing as a free lunch" is usually true. A little doubt about the pro bono process is understandable, particularly since lawyers don't always have the best reputation. But pro bono really does mean free legal services.

There's no catch. But it is important to remember that some legal actions cost money outside of what your lawyer charges you. For example, you have to pay your state government to incorporate a business. Courts charge money, too, in the form of court fees. If a lawyer takes on your case pro bono, there can still be some costs to get done what you need to. There are a couple of options for paying these expenses:

  • Seeking a fee waiver. State governments and courts support lawyers working pro bono, and many courts will allow you to skip paying court costs if your lawyer is working for you pro bono or if you have a low enough income to qualify for a fee waiver. Your attorney will look to get a waiver from the court if this is a possibility.
  • Seeking "attorney's fees" from the opposing party. In some lawsuits the person suing can seek attorney's fees. This means the losing party must pay your lawyer for their expenses. But you, the client, still pay nothing, and you keep all the money that is owed to you. To make this clearer, imagine you are unlawfully evicted from your apartment. An attorney takes your case pro bono, sues your landlord, and you win, including an award for attorney's fees. The landlord must then pay your attorney an additional reasonable amount for the cost of going to court, but you'd still get the entirety of everything the landlord owes you.
  • Asking you to share court costs. Some attorneys will ask that you contribute to or pay for court costs if you are not eligible to get a waiver (some attorneys will cover them for you). How much money this is depends on your legal issue and what court you are going to. This is something your pro bono attorney will discuss with you when they agree to represent you. It will also be in writing in your retainer agreement. In other words, there should never be any surprise costs.

A pro bono attorney will never charge you for providing legal services or advice. If that's the case, it isn't pro bono work.

Why Do Attorneys and Law Firms Work Pro Bono?

If money isn't driving lawyers to do pro bono work, what is? There are real benefits for lawyers and law firms. For one, the American Bar Association (ABA) has created rules of professional conduct. ABA Model Rule 6.1 says that lawyers should spend a minimum of 50 hours per year on pro bono work. Doing pro bono is an expectation (although not an official requirement) for being a member of the bar.

Attorneys can also get personal benefits from doing pro bono work. In addition to providing real help to people (which is its own reward) giving back to the community is a good business model. Businesses in a wide variety of fields make it a focus to be a good member of their communities. A restaurant may sponsor a team in a community softball league by providing uniforms. A bank may sponsor a charity event to raise money for a good cause and generate goodwill. The idea behind pro bono work is the same. Doing pro bono work is a way lawyers can show that they do really care about their clients and communities.

Finally, some lawyers take pro bono work to get exposure to different kinds of work. A lawyer may benefit by taking on a case pro bono so they can keep their trial skills sharp if they no longer regularly go to court, as just one example. Others may look to expand and refine existing skills.​

Whatever the reason, the result is the same for a pro bono client: You get legal services at no cost.

The Same Quality of Representation

Another common (and understandable) question for pro bono clients is if they will get the same quality of work as the attorney's other, paying clients. The short answer is yes. Whether you are paying your attorney or not, once the attorney agrees to represent you, you have every right that any other client has. If your pro bono attorney agrees to represent you and then fails to do anything or otherwise makes bad mistakes, you can sue them for malpractice. All of the same legal and ethical rules that apply to paying clients applies to pro bono clients, as well.

An attorney may limit their pro bono representation to one specific issue, however. If you are getting a divorce and also dealing with an immigration issue, for example, an attorney may agree to help you with the immigration issue pro bono but it may be too expensive (or outside of their area of expertise) for them to take on the divorce work as well. Your pro bono attorney will make it clear at the outset the exact scope of their representation in your retainer agreement.

How Do I Get Pro Bono Representation?

There are a number of organizations that focus solely on representing clients who cannot pay. Legal Aid is the most commonly known organization that offers services to low-income populations. Legal Aid organizations are organized at the state level, meaning that every state may have slightly different capabilities for taking on cases.

Many other pro bono organizations exist, often ones that focus on a specific cause or area of law. This could include women's shelters that offer help to obtain a restraining order, civil rights organizations, and others. FindLaw has compiled resources for people looking to contact a local pro bono organization.