The Meaning of Pro Bono
Pro bono, a phrase of Latin origin that translates to “for the public good,” refers to the provision of professional services at little or no cost. For attorneys, this familiar expression represents time spent away from billable tasks, and it can be both inspiring and challenging. While the meaning is easily grasped, what does pro bono work entail in practical terms?
The Importance of Pro Bono Work
Pro bono work is important because the need for it is evident. Our legal system relies on equal access to the privileges and protections it affords, and those without financial means deserve capable representation. With their advanced legal knowledge and education, lawyers can grant others full access to the legal system. This could involve leveraging the power of the law to address society’s most challenging problems or providing assistance to individuals who have fallen victim to schemes. Both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between, align with the goals of the justice system.
The American Bar Association does not mandate pro bono work but strongly encourages it. According to their Model Rule 6.1, attorneys should aim to provide a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono services per year. These 50 hours, or more, can have a life-changing impact on pro bono clients, and the benefits to the attorneys themselves can be profound.
Engaging in pro bono work may take attorneys outside their area of expertise. Although this may be intimidating, tackling projects outside one’s comfort zone enhances skills and enables them to focus their pro bono hours on areas where they can be most helpful. For instance, a corporate lawyer with little knowledge of human rights cases may gain valuable insights while delivering cross-over assistance in research.
By collaborating with colleagues from other practice areas within their firm or other departments within their organization, pro bono work fosters lasting relationships and builds teams that can learn from each other and foster retention. These networking opportunities are invaluable for career development.
Attorneys and their firms can enhance their reputations by doing good. Pro bono work can raise the profile of lawyers or organizations, particularly when tied to a thoughtful public relations program. When evaluating law firms, many clients view those with social responsibility initiatives favorably.
Pro bono assignments provide young lawyers with opportunities to take the lead or argue a case, which they might not have with paying clients. For this reason, pro bono work is often a key consideration for young lawyers when deciding where to launch their careers. A well-established pro bono program can also be a determining factor for rising stars. Similarly, a commitment to pro bono work serves as a good retention tool for more experienced attorneys.
How Do Pro Bono Lawyers Get Compensated?
When it comes to dollars and cents, the short answer is that they don’t. However, not all compensation comes in the form of cash. Perhaps the best reason to provide pro bono services is the satisfaction that comes from helping others. Pro bono work reminds attorneys that the law exists to serve everyone, regardless of their financial circumstances. While these rewards are difficult to quantify, they are genuine motivations for engaging in pro bono work.
According to Aaron Wade at TrialLawyerMoney.org, “Most pro bono cases are about passion for the attorney. Passion for serving, passion for publicity, passion for the cause of which he or she is standing, all can be ways that an attorney gets ‘paid’ for pro bono work. The work comes from the heart, and often an attorney might work as hard or harder in these cases than in others where he or she is making billable hours.”
The hard work put into pro bono cases can be considered an investment in future business. A successful pro bono case, especially one that garners significant attention, has the potential to generate new business. Even basic pro bono work can help build a firm’s reputation as a legal leader when featured in PR programs or legal awards applications.
In conclusion, pro bono work levels the playing field for clients who cannot afford capable legal representation. Attorneys providing pro bono services acquire new skills, establish career connections, and enhance their professional profiles. New lawyers gain real-world legal experience, while seasoned attorneys reignite their passion for the law. All this, for just 50 hours a year.
A local legal services agency or bar association can connect clients in need with attorneys looking for pro bono opportunities. Larger organizations dedicated to matching clients, causes, and attorneys include:
- The Pro Bono Institute is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., focused on pro bono initiatives. Its mission is to “explore and identify new approaches to and resources for the provision of legal services to the poor, disadvantaged, and other individuals or groups unable to secure legal assistance to address critical problems.”
- TrustLaw is the global pro bono legal service of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. TrustLaw connects high-impact NGOs and social enterprises working to create social and environmental change with the best law firms and corporate legal teams, providing them with free legal assistance.
For further information on creating satisfying work, visit Keep attorneys happy with non-monetary compensation.