What does pro bono mean?
Pro bono, whose English translation of the well-known Latin phrase is “for the public good,” refers to professional services provided at no or very low cost. For attorneys, this familiar expression can stand for time away from billable duties, and it can be both inspiring and challenging. While the semantics are easily understood, what does pro bono mean in practical terms?
Why do pro bono work?
Pro bono work is important because the need is evident. Our system of law 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 education, lawyers can provide others full access to the legal system. This could mean leveraging the power of the law to tackle some of society’s most challenging problems, or it could mean assisting an individual 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 doesn’t mandate pro bono work but strongly encourages it. Under their Model Rule 6.1, attorneys should 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 to the attorneys can be profound as well.
- Skills stretch: Pro bono work may or may not be focused on an attorney’s area of specialty. While it can be intimidating, the challenge of working outside a field of expertise enhances an attorney’s skills and helps focus pro bono hours on areas where they can provide the most assistance. For example, a corporate lawyer who knows little about human rights cases may gain valuable insights while providing cross-over assistance in research.
- Team building: By collaborating with colleagues from other practice areas within a firm (or other departments within an organization), pro bono work can build lasting relationships and foster teams that can learn from each other and encourage retention. These networking opportunities can prove invaluable for career development.
- Reputation boost: Attorneys and their firms can look good while doing good. Pro bono work can increase a lawyer’s or organization’s profile when tied to a thoughtful public relations program. When evaluating law firms, many clients look favorably at those who have social responsibility initiatives.
- Recruiting tool: Pro bono assignments can give young lawyers a chance to lead or argue a case they might not be able to with paying clients. For that reason, pro bono work is often a key benefit young lawyers look for when deciding where to begin their careers. A demonstrated pro bono program can be a deciding factor for rising stars. In much the same way, a commitment to pro bono is also a good retention tool for more seasoned attorneys.
How do pro bono lawyers get paid?
When it comes to dollars and cents, the short answer is: they don’t. But not all compensation comes in the form of cash. Possibly the best reason to provide pro bono services is the sense of satisfaction that comes from helping others. Pro bono work reminds attorneys that the law is there to serve everyone, regardless of their financial circumstances. While these rewards are hard to quantify, they are very real reasons to provide pro bono services.
“Most pro bono cases are about passion for the attorney,” writes Aaron Wade at TrialLawyerMoney.org. “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 just might work as hard or harder in these cases than in others where he or she is making billable hours.”
That hard work can be considered an investment in future business. A successful pro bono case, especially a high-profile one, can be a business generator. But even basic pro bono work can help build a firm’s image as a legal leader when featured in PR programs or legal awards applications.
In the end, what does pro bono mean to clients and attorneys? Pro bono work can level the playing field for clients who aren’t able to pay for capable representation. Attorneys providing pro bono services learn new skills, make career connections, and boost their professional profiles. New attorneys can gain real-world legal experience and seasoned attorneys can re-energize their love of the law. All for the price of 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 Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit 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 Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono legal service. TrustLaw connects high-impact NGOs and social enterprises working to create social and environmental change with the best law firms and corporate legal teams, to provide them with free legal assistance.
For further information on creating satisfying work, go to Keep attorneys happy with non-monetary compensation.