What does pro bono mean?
Pro bono, whose English translation of the well-known Latin expression is “for the public good”, refers to professional services provided free of charge or at very low cost. For lawyers, this colloquialism can represent time spent away from billable duties, and it can be both inspiring and empowering. While the semantics are easy to understand, what does pro bono mean in practical terms?
Why pro bono work?
Pro bono work is important because the need is clear. Our legal system depends on equal access to the privileges and protections it provides, and those without means deserve competent representation. By the nature of their advanced legal knowledge and training, lawyers can provide others with full access to the legal system. It could mean harnessing the power of the law to tackle some of society’s toughest problems, or it could mean helping someone who has been the victim of a scheme. Both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between, support the goals of the justice system.
The American Bar Association does mandate pro bono work but strongly encourages this. Under their Model Rule 6.1, lawyers must aspire to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono services per year. Those 50 hours (or more) can be life changing for pro bono clients, and the benefits for lawyers can be significant as well.
- Skill stretch: Pro bono work may or may not be focused on a lawyer’s area of expertise. Although it can be daunting, the challenge of working outside of an area of expertise enhances a lawyer’s skills and helps focus pro bono hours on areas where they can provide the most assistance. For example, a corporate lawyer unfamiliar with human rights cases can gain valuable insights while providing cross-research assistance.
- Team building: By collaborating with colleagues from other practice areas within a company (or other departments within an organization), pro bono work can build lasting relationships and foster teams that can learn from each other. others and encourage retention. These networking opportunities can prove invaluable for career development.
- Reputation Boost: Lawyers and their firms can look good while doing good. Pro bono work can raise the profile of a lawyer or organization when linked to a thoughtful public relations program. When evaluating law firms, many clients look favorably on those with social responsibility initiatives.
- Recruitment tool: Pro bono assignments can give young lawyers a chance to conduct or litigate a case they might not be able to conduct with paying clients. For this reason, pro bono work is often a key advantage young lawyers seek when deciding where to start their careers. A demonstrated pro bono program can be a deciding factor for rising stars. In the same way, a pro bono engagement is also a good retention tool for more experienced lawyers.
How are pro bono lawyers paid?
When it comes to dollars and cents, the short answer is: they don’t. But not all compensation comes in the form of money. Perhaps the best reason for providing pro bono services is the sense of satisfaction that comes from helping others. Pro bono work reminds lawyers that the law is there to serve everyone, regardless of their financial situation. Although these rewards are difficult to quantify, they are very real reasons for providing pro bono services.
“Most pro bono cases are about passion for the lawyer,” writes Aaron Wade on TrialLawyerMoney.org. “Passion to serve, passion for publicity, passion for the cause he or she stands for, all can be a way for a lawyer to get ‘paid’ for pro bono work. Work comes from the heart, and often a lawyer can work as hard or harder in these cases than in others where they put in billable hours.
This hard work can be seen as an investment in future business. A successful pro bono case, especially a high profile case, can be a business generator. But even basic pro bono work can help reinforce a firm’s image as a legal leader when featured in public relations programs or applications for legal awards.
Ultimately, what does pro bono mean for clients and lawyers? Pro bono work can level the playing field for clients who are unable to pay for competent representation. Lawyers providing pro bono services learn new skills, build career relationships and improve their professional profile. New lawyers can gain real-world legal experience and seasoned lawyers can reinvigorate their love of law. All for the price of just 50 hours per year.
A local legal services agency or bar association can connect clients in need with attorneys seeking pro bono opportunities. Major organizations dedicated to matching clients, cases and attorneys include:
The Pro Bono Institute is a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization focused on pro bono initiatives. Its mission is “to explore and identify new approaches and resources for the provision of legal services to the poor, disadvantaged and other individuals or groups unable to obtain legal assistance to solve 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 top law firms and corporate legal teams, to provide them with free legal assistance.
For more information on creating satisfying work, go to Make Lawyers Satisfied with Non-Cash Compensation.