You might have heard the term “pro bono” legal services before, and you might have a vague idea of what it means.
The term is short for “pro bono publico,” or “for the public good” in Latin. The basic idea is that an attorney offers free legal services to those who cannot pay for them.
But it actually means far more than that.
A pro bono attorney isn’t really any different from a regular attorney. They just offer their services for free or a discounted rate to those who cannot pay for them. The rigor of representation is still the same, and the legal outcome is the same. The legal professional is simply paid by someone else, or not at all.
Each licensed attorney is supposed to provide approximately 50 hours of pro bono legal work each year.
This is not monitored by the American Bar Association. Rather, it is an ideal to which lawyers should aspire. Rule 6.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct states:
Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year. In fulfilling this responsibility, the lawyer should:
a. Provide a substantial majority of the (50) hours of legal services without fee or expectation of fee to:
1. Persons of limited means or
2. Charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations in matters that are designed primarily to address the needs of persons of limited means; and
b. Provide any additional services through:
1. Delivery of legal services at no fee or substantially reduced fee to individuals, groups or organizations seeking to secure or protect civil rights, civil liberties or public rights, or charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations in matters in furtherance of their organizational purposes, where the payment of standard legal fees would significantly deplete the organization's economic resources or would be otherwise inappropriate;
2. Delivery of legal services at substantially reduced fee to persons of limited means; or
3. Participation in activities for improving the law, the legal system or the legal profession.
Essentially, using pro bono legal services is how to get a lawyer with no money. But not everyone qualifies for a pro bono attorney.
In criminal trials, defendants are guaranteed representation because of the Constitutional provision that requires it. Lawyers are provided for those who cannot afford them. This is where public defenders come in; they are given cases for indigent clients who need legal help.
Pro bono assistance is available in civil justice instances for those who cannot afford legal representation — the typical cutoff is those whose income is less than 125% of the federal poverty level.
Areas covered by pro bono include, but are not limited to:
Many attorneys choose to volunteer as part of a law project, which are oftentimes associated with law schools. Students will obtain a special certification to practice before being licensed, and they will assist in interviewing clients, going to court, writing briefs and more. This is a great way for them to get practical experience prior to graduating and see what being in the field is really like. It is also a way to get into a courtroom and gain recognition.
Victims in these situations may be short on funds to pay an attorney, which keeps them in a downward spiral. By foregoing the usual fees, an attorney can make a great amount of difference. Helping a grateful client who literally has no other options is a wonderful experience.
The American Bar Association has a handy map via which you can pick your state and find a pro bono attorney on a local level. There is also the Legal Services Corporation, established by Congress in 1974, which can help you find a legal aid firm near you. The Corporation provides funding to 133 clinics all over the country.
If you just have a legal-related question, you can also try ABA Free Legal Answers. (Keep in mind that this is only for civil law, not criminal.) By posting a question, a qualified attorney will be able to review the issues and see if you need additional help. Then you can be paired to a volunteer lawyer based on your query.
Many of our the attorneys listed in Enjuris are more than willing to help you sort out any problems you might have — and on a pro bono basis, too. Check out our directory and see if a lawyer near you can provide assistance.