In many locations, such as state capitals, government attorneys are the largest pool of potential volunteers. In other locations, such as very rural counties, government attorneys may represent a large percentage of available volunteers. As a result, pro bono programs and government agencies are designing new ways and opportunities for government attorneys to participate in pro bono.
The ABA Resolution 121A urges government attorneys to provide pro bono services. 121A also encourages government offices adopt written policies and procedures to enable and encourage employees to engage in pro bono work.
The ABA Center for Pro Bono and the ABA Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division offer an online publication, Pro Bono Project Development: A Deskbook For Government and Public Sector Lawyers, to provide guidance in developing pro bono opportunities for government attorneys. The deskbook addresses the issues that arise from government attorney pro bono participation, such as conflicts of interest, limitations on use of agency resources such as photocopiers, and restrictions on volunteering during office hours.
Government Agencies and Pro Bono
Government support of pro bono participation at the highest levels and the institution of clear policies have eased many former barriers to pro bono. For example, the Attorney General in Maryland established a Pro Bono Program Committee in 1989 to coordinate and oversee the Attorney General's Pro Bono Program. The Committee sets policy for the Program, provides its administrative support, and resolves any question about potential conflicts of interest.
A number of federal and state agencies have established pro bono policies for attorneys employed by the agency. Examples of such policies include:
- United State Department of Justice Policy Statement on Pro Bono Legal and Volunteer Services
- United States Postal Service Law Department Pro Bono Policy
- Montana Department of Justice Pro Bono Policy
- New York Attorney General
- Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department Pro Bono Policy
The Minnesota State Bar Association has developed a Model Pro Bono Policy and Procedures for Government Attorneys. The model policy provides sample language for a pro bono policy along with explanatory comments. The policy covers topics including the definition of pro bono, procedures for pro bono participation, identification with the government agency, and use of agency resources. Other states have developed similar model policies for their states.
- New York State Bar Association Model Pro Bono Policy
- Maryland Model Pro Bono Policy
- Hawaii Model Pro Bono Policy
Developing relationships with top-level government attorneys may produce unexpected benefits. In Georgia, Atlanta Legal Aid Society (ALAS) worked closely with Governor Roy Barnes in designing anti-predatory lending legislation, which was then enacted by the Georgia legislature. As a result of the relationship that the program developed with Governor Barnes, he served as a volunteer attorney with the ALAS for six months after leaving office. His example of continued support and commitment to pro bono work is an example for other government attorneys.
Projects that Facilitate Participation by Government Attorneys
Pro bono organizations and volunteer attorneys have worked together to develop projects designed to provide pro bono opportunities tailored to the restrictions faced by government employees. Projects seek to accommodate government attorneys by providing opportunities outside of working hours, providing a location to meet with clients, or finding an area of law - such as children's SSI claims - that does not present a conflict of interest.
- The King County Bar Association ("KCBA") developed several successful projects for government attorneys. The KCBA worked with the Washington Department of Labor attorneys to provide legal advice on wage claims through Casa Latina, a day laborers' organization. In another project, local prosecutors participated in regular clinics at homeless shelters. Additionally, local prosecutors adopted a women's shelter and conducted legal clinics twice per month on their lunch hour.
- Florida Rural Legal Services ("FRLS") developed a close working relationship with the local public defender and worked to integrate them into the pro bono referral process. FRLS sent cases to the public defender, which then placed the cases with private pro bono attorneys.
- Legal Services of North Florida ("LSNF") developed an active government attorney involvement in its homeless project, night clinic program, senior citizen center intake and advice clinic, and telephone hotline. The telephone hotline was sponsored by different agencies such as the Florida Attorney Generals Office, Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Department of Community Affairs, and the City of Tallahassee attorney's office.
Additional examples of pro bono projects involving attorneys from local and state government offices include:
The ABA Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division publication, The Public Laywer, published an article entitled "Eight Questions a Government Lawyer Should Ask Before Taking a Pro Bono Case." The article provides government attorneys guidance in locating appropriate pro bono opportunities.
Additional guidance for developing a pro bono program for government attorneys can be found in the article Setting Up and Running a Pro Bono Program in a Government Office: The NLRB's Experience 7 THE PUBLIC LAWYER 2 (Summer 1999).
Illinois Legal Aid Online has an informative web page on pro bono and federal government attorneys.
For more information, please email the Center for Pro Bono.
Updated March 2020