Lawyers provide valuable services to people in need. They advise and represent their clients in complex, challenging situations. And they are paid a lot to do it. But not everyone can afford an attorney. Do lawyers have to do pro bono work?
Attorneys do not have to do pro bono work, but many do. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct encourage lawyers to provide at least fifty hours of pro bono work every year. Moreover, lawyers who provide pro bono services report higher levels of satisfaction with their jobs. Finally, without pro bono representation, many vulnerable people would suffer.
What is Pro Bono Work?
Pro bono means for the public good. When lawyers provide legal services without expectation of payments, it is called pro bono work. Lawyers provide pro bono services in many fields. Most people know that indigent people charged with a crime may be eligible for a public defender. A public defender is an attorney working without charging the client.
However, more than criminal defense pro bono services are available. Family law services are often available, as well. Children in child endangerment cases usually have a guardian ad litem. A guardian ad litem is usually an attorney representing the child’s interests in the case.
An additional area with pro bono services available is in landlord-tenant cases. Here, attorneys offering pro bono work usually provide advice, but may only appear in court with the parties in complicated cases. Pro bono attorneys in this field may act as more of a mediator than just an advisor.
A third practice area with pro bono attorneys is corporate law. Small businesses and non-profit organizations benefit from quality advice and representation. Pro bono attorneys provide this in an affordable fashion. This area of pro bono is probably one of the lesser known available options.
Yet another important field of law offering pro bono services is immigration. Immigration law is quite complex. Therefore, it is important that everyone involved with immigration cases have thorough legal advice and representation.
The list of areas with a need for pro bono work could go on. Domestic violence victims, artists, human rights, etc. Thus, the need for pro bono attorneys is great.
The Need for Pro Bono Work
There are many reasons pro bono work is necessary. The ABA estimated that over 80% of lower- to middle-class people in need of civil legal services cannot or do not receive legal assistance. Their situations involve complex legal issues and procedures. An attorney providing them pro bono work would be beneficial to everyone involved, including the parties, courts, etc.
When a person represents themselves in court, it is called pro se representation. Pro se litigants often slow the court process and struggle to follow required procedures. The cases are also more costly, in the end. Litigants and courts benefit by having pro bono attorneys represent them instead of them representing themselves.
In the criminal defense area, those accused of serious crimes need representation to ensure their constitutional rights are protected. The risk of these rights not being protected is too great, so clients unable to afford representation will likely be given an attorney pro bono. This is the most well-known area where lawyers work pro bono.
The Benefits of Pro Bono Work
There are many reasons pro bono work benefits both the clients and lawyers. For lawyers, pro bono work provides them with a gratifying experience. A lot of people become lawyers because they want to help others, but find that their day-to-day practice does not allow for as much of that type of work as they would like. Therefore, they provide pro bono services to feel more helpful.
Another benefit of pro bono work is it provides valuable experience for the attorneys. Many law schools have pro bono clinics where law students may provide pro bono services. These clinics allow for valuable exposure to a variety of legal situations. Through this experience, law students build valuable skills that help all of their clients.
Some states waive yearly bar fees for attorneys who complete enough hours of approved pro bono work. These fees are often hundreds of dollars, so waiving the fee is an important benefit. This is particularly motivating for young lawyers.
Providing pro bono work increases morale and provides good publicity at law firms. Lawyers are happier if many attorneys at their law firm provide pro bono work. They also feel closer to their coworkers by providing pro bono work as a team.
Finally, providing pro bono work is good marketing. It shows the attorney is caring and devoted to public service. This good publicity is another benefit of pro bono work.
Is Pro Bono Work Required?
In most states, pro bono work is not required to be performed. The reasons for this include requiring pro bono work would create a conflict for attorneys. They find their time limited and therefore their paying clients would suffer lower quality representation when the lawyer’s time must be spent with pro bono clients. Another reason is that requiring charitable contributions of time takes away from the charitable aspect of pro bono service.
To become a new member of the New York State Bar Association, law students must complete 50 hours of approved pro bono work. This is different because they do not have their own clients who may suffer. Moreover, the value added to new law school graduates from doing pro bono outweighs concerns about requiring pro bono work.
Why Do Some Lawyers Not Provide Pro Bono Services?
There are many reasons lawyers choose not to do pro bono services. A common theme is the lawyer does not feel qualified to practice the pro bono services needed in their area. A contracts attorney probably does not feel qualified to represent a client in a criminal case. However, as stated above, there is significant pro bono work for contracts lawyers to perform. Moreover, law clinics and other pro bono services provide training for lawyers interested in joining them but lacking experience in the particular area of law.
Another reason for not participating in pro bono work is the costs associated with providing these services. The lawyer must forgo opportunities that would be for pay to perform pro bono work. The lawyer may be under tight deadlines and would have to outsource some of their work to perform pro bono work. But, as stated above, pro bono increases profits through higher happiness with the job and good publicity.
A final reason for not providing pro bono services is the lack of resources to provide the work. Everything from legal research services to filing fees create significant costs. Typically, the client would be responsible for such fees, but truly needy clients may be unable. However, many pro bono organizations and sometimes even the state have funds to assist with these costs.
How to Find Pro Bono Services?
There are many local, state, and national websites useful for finding pro bono lawyers. The American Bar Association website is one such resource. This website has a link to all state websites with lists of pro bono services available in the state.
Your state’s bar association website is probably the best place to start. It will have links to active pro bono organizations near you. Most states have many law clinics available. These include advice for bankruptcy or debt reorganization, landlord-tenant disputes, and immigration issues.
There are several state and national organizations that organize pro bono attorneys. These include:
- Association of Corporate Counsel
- Pro Bono Partnership
- American Bar Association Center for Pro Bono
- Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts
- Corporate Pro Bono
- Government Attorneys and Pro Bono
- Human Rights First
- Immigration Advocates Network (IAN) Pro Bono Resource Center
- Her Justice
Finally, many law schools have law clinics that may be helpful. These are managed by licensed attorneys, but law students provide the work under close supervision. Do not let their inexperience discourage you. It is usually the brightest law students participating in these law clinics.
Final Thoughts: Do Lawyers Have to Do Pro Bono Work?
In almost all situations, lawyers are not required to perform pro bono work. Reasons for this include potential conflicts for the attorneys and the negative effects on the rewards of pro bono work. The professional rules of conduct encourage lawyers to perform 50 hours of work per year, but this is not mandatory. According to the American Bar Association, over 80% of lawyers do provide pro bono services.
Pro bono work is legal advice and representation provided to a client without expectation of payment. It is needed for people who cannot afford their own attorney. It is beneficial to these clients because they receive much needed counsel in complex legal situations. Without the pro bono lawyer, they would have to proceed pro se, likely at extra time and expense and with a higher likelihood of mistakes.
Lawyers benefit from pro bono work, as well. They experience more happiness with their careers. Pro bono lawyers also benefit from improved and expanded legal skills. Providing pro bono work is good publicity for them. Finally, in some states, there are financial incentives, such as lower year bar dues.
Pro bono services are most easily found on your state bar website. Another good source would be local law schools. Finally, there are professional organizations in almost every area of law. Their websites provide helpful information for finding a pro bono lawyer and for lawyers to identify ways for them to provide pro bono work.
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