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Managing Volunteer Lawyers

Effective management of a program's volunteers is essential to the provision of a high-quality experience to both client and the volunteer. The program must ensure that the volunteer lawyers are competent and that the volunteer lawyers properly handle cases referred. To effectively manage volunteer lawyers, the program should implement procedures that:

  • provide volunteers with appropriate substantive training;
  • verify that volunteer lawyers are qualified to provide the legal services in question;
  • provide volunteers with appropriate training in program operations, including a reference manual; and
  • track referred cases.

Quality Control: Training and Qualification

The ABA Standards for Providing Civil Pro Bono Legal Services to Persons of Limited Means ("Standards") address the necessity of quality control in a pro bono program.

Standard 3.5-3 provides that a pro bono program should provide training opportunities and support services to volunteers. Training and support are necessary to ensure quality legal services, as many volunteers serve in substantive areas outside their areas of expertise. Providing training and support enables a volunteer to feel more confident in her ability to serve clients and ensures that a client will receive competent legal advice.

Standard 4.2 states that programs should strive to determine that volunteers are competent and sensitive to clients. Programs should require that all lawyer volunteers are eligible to practice law in the geographical service area, and, to the extent possible, ensure that the lawyer volunteers are not facing disciplinary action or disbarment. Additionally, programs should make certain that volunteers are familiar with the substantive areas in which they provide services. If volunteers are not familiar with the substantive area, the program should offer training and support from staff lawyers or mentors. The pro bono program is responsible for providing quality legal services to its clients and must take all available steps to do so.

Programs should also educate the volunteer lawyers about the challenges unique to the low-income population, such as lack of telephones, childcare, and reliable transportation. Educating a volunteer lawyer in advance will prepare a lawyer and, if a challenging situation arises, decrease the frustration with the volunteer experience. If a volunteer is serving a particular population, such as the homeless, domestic violence survivors, or AIDS patients, the program should educate the volunteer lawyer about any special needs or characteristics of that population.

Program Operations

Pro bono programs should provide volunteer lawyers with information and training on the program's policies and procedures. Familiarity with program operations serves two purposes:

  • building confidence within the volunteer lawyer panel that they will receive appropriate cases, and
  • informing volunteer lawyers of their responsibilities as a volunteer.

Volunteer lawyers should be familiar with the services provided by the pro bono program. Familiarity with the program's services ensures that the volunteer lawyer will not be surprised by the cases referred to her. The pro bono program should provide volunteer lawyers with overview information on the client intake system and eligibility guidelines. The program should also inform the volunteer lawyers about the types of cases handled, both by staff lawyers and by referrals to volunteers.

Additionally, the program should advise volunteer lawyers of its resources and policies. The program should provide information regarding the availability of professional liability insurance for pro bono referrals. The program should communicate to volunteers (as well as to clients) a clear policy regarding payment of costs including filing fees, service fees, and witness fees, as recommended in Standard 3.5-5.

Programs should also communicate to volunteers a policy regarding receiving lawyers' fees in association with a pro bono case, as recommended in Standard 3.5-6. Communicating clearly established policies on these issues will avoid future misunderstandings and possible hard feelings.

Finally, the program should also inform volunteer lawyers about resources in the community. A list of other organizations in the community that serve the client community, with contact information and type of assistance available, is invaluable. Such a list should include both legal services providers and other community service agencies, such as shelters, food pantries, and financial assistance programs. Compiling the above information into a manual for program volunteers creates a convenient resource for volunteers' future reference. Manuals may also include lists of volunteer mentors, including substantive specialties and contact information, as well as staff lawyer contact information.

Case Tracking and Record Keeping

Standard 4.5 addresses the need to track the progress of cases placed with volunteers. Tracking the progress of referred cases is necessary to ensure that the case does not get "lost." Pro bono programs can now track cases fairly easily with the assistance of computer software designed for such purposes.

In addition to ensuring that cases do not get lost, tracking provides an opportunity for the program to check in with the volunteer lawyer. Frequent contact with the volunteer lawyer allows the program to determine whether the volunteer lawyer requires assistance in handling the referred case. If a volunteer lawyer is in need of assistance, the program should provide the assistance required subject to any limitations imposed by rules of professional conduct. Assistance may range from providing an experienced lawyer as a mentor to providing forms.

Tracking cases also provides notice to the program that a case has been closed or completed. If a program refers multiple cases to volunteers, it is important to know that a volunteer has completed a case and may be able to accept another referral. Additionally, some funders require programs to track the number of cases closed and/or completed.

For More Information

For materials on managing volunteer lawyers, including sample case status and tracking forms, program directories, and volunteer manuals, please see the Center for Pro Bono's Knowledge Center. For additional information regarding managing volunteer lawyers, please contact staff at the Center for Pro Bono.