Frequently Asked Questions About Pro Bono Attorneys & Legal Aid

1. What is a Pro Bono Attorney?

The Latin phrase pro bono publico means “for the good of the people.” In legal profession circles, pro bono describes the free-of-charge or subsidized legal services attorneys perform to promote the public interest. Pro bono attorney volunteerism helps people who cannot afford lawyers' fees.

2. What Legal Work Qualifies an Attorney as Pro Bono?

Legal services that are provided free of charge, without expectation of attorney compensation, or to non-profit organizations. A pro bono attorney works with the primary purpose of service to the poor, or on behalf of the poor. Under the corresponding state’s Pro Bono Resolution, a pro bono lawyer must be screened and referred by a qualified legal services provider to qualify and work as a pro bono attorney.

3. What Does Not Qualify as Pro Bono?

If you are an attorney providing legal services to friends, relatives, charitable organizations, or government organizations this does not qualify you as pro bono. If you have a client who becomes unable to pay for legal fees, the debt they owe you at the end of your services also doesn’t qualify you as treating them pro bono. Further, if you provide services on a sliding fee scale to clients with low income to moderate income, this does not qualify you as pro bono.

4. How Much Time is Required to Give Pro Bono Services?

The State Bar’s Pro Bono Resolution urge all lawyers to give at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services every year. Although this is not a requirement, the Resolution strongly encourages all attorneys to provide qualified pro bono services. A few hours towards underserved groups and clients is highly recommended. Qualified legal services providers track pro bono hours by volunteers, while law firms track hours contributed by their firm members. Certain states do not ask attorneys to track pro bono hours.

5. Can a Retired Attorney Work Pro Bono?

Yes. A retired attorney can participate in a myriad of pro bono services including mentoring, legal clinic services, or full representation. The active membership fee is waived by the State Bar for those who give pro bono services solely to providing pro bono service through qualified legal service providers and certified lawyer referral services. If you are working partial legal time, the same services are available if you are not yet retired or are not taking as many cases as if you were full time.

6. Do I Have to Take on an Entire Case if I’m Providing Service Pro Bono?

No. There are many pro bono activities that do not require direct or full representation or court appearances. Pro bono activities include service over the phone or in person, document view and preparation, legal writing and researching, and mentoring new attorneys. There are programs available for those who only can or want to provide pro bono services in legal clinics. Also, certain state courts allow limited representation services to clients, which includes drafting pleadings or partial representation.

7. How Do I Know if I am Qualified?

To participate in legal services, pro bono or not, one must be qualified by the State Bar. If you receive funds from the State Bar’s Legal Services Trust Fund Program, you are a qualified legal service provider. To gain qualification and training, contact an MCLE in your area to learn about different legal areas, while in exchange providing a certain number of pro bono hours or cases.  For further training, you can visit the Pro Bono Institute online, which provides free online education for those thinking about gaining pro bono hours or who want to take on cases with low-income clients.

8. When Does the Pro Bono Requirement Take Effect for Law Students at an American Bar Association- Approved School?

This varies state-by-state. For example, for those law students admitted to the New York bar, the performance of at least 50 hours of eligible pro bono work depends on the law student’s date of admission. The is on an annual basis, and can be calculated by the law student from when he or she starts law school. Every state has a bar website where you can look up the specific date requirements.

9. When Can I Begin to Fulfill the Pro Bono Requirement?

As soon as possible. For those already practicing law, you can start immediately once you are qualified. If you are a law student, eligible pro bono work performed at any time after you started law school will go towards meeting the Requirement. Further, if you are still studying law, check your school’s policies and regulations before performing any pro bono work.

10. What Types of Pro Bono Work May I Perform While I am Still a Law Student?

Anything that is law-related. The services performed must be appropriate for lawyers-in-training and not yet admitted to practice. Law students must avoid unauthorized law practices, as this would jeopardize their law education. Examples of adequate pro bono law practices by a law student include helping low-income clients complete court forms, assisting an attorney with trial prep, helping litigants prepare for court appearances, appear and help with witness interviewing, drafting court documents, and more.