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Pro Bono

Pro Bono and the Public Lawyer

The organized bar encourages lawyers to provide free legal services to those in need. But for public lawyers, pro bono (or volunteer) legal work is sometimes problematic. Government lawyers may face conflict of interest restrictions, limitations on the use of office resources and statutory restrictions constraining their ability to perform pro bono work. However, because of the variety of volunteer opportunities that exist and the increased sensitivity about the restrictions faced by public lawyers, opportunities for government lawyer pro bono work are available.

How to Establish a Pro Bono Program for a Government Office

1. Decide on the type of pro bono activity that would suit your office. Office staff may participate in pro bono activities through:

  • An already-established bar association program
  • An in-house pro bono program
  • An independent outside pro bono activity that has been approved through an internal mechanism

An office may offer a combination of the above opportunities.

2. Develop a pro bono policy. Include the following: 

  • definition of what constitutes pro bono
  • procedures for case approvals and conflicts checks
  • the permissible use of office resources
  • use of compensatory or vacation leave
  • number of suggested hours
  • types of cases that can be handled
  • retainer agreements
  • evaluation procedures

3. Create a pro bono steering committee and coordinator. This person or persons is the liaison between the office and the outside or in-house program and will handle project administration and training.

4. Contact local bar association programs and other pro bono programs for partnership opportunities and case sources.

5. For in-house programs only: set up a referral process. Be sure to include:

  • screening for financial eligibility
  • a conflicts check
  • a standardized method for recording case assignments and case status

6. Ensure that volunteers are provided with the following support and training:

  • office space for conducting interviews
  • specialized manuals in the various substantive law areas
  • malpractice insurance
  • sample pleadings
  • paralegal, admin or law student assistance
  • funds to cover litigation costs
  • mentoring and co-counseling of volunteers where appropriate

7. Develop a review and evaluation procedure. Decide on the form of review; peer review teams, review by agency or organizational leaders, or independent outside evaluation? Data should be gathered to answer the following types of questions:

  • What is the nature or scope of the services being provided?
  • Has the project been successful in recruiting volunteer attorneys?
  • Is the program from which you are receiving referrals best suited to your office’s talents?
  • Do you receive cases that do not create conflicts?
  • What can you do differently to ensure that clients are receiving the best quality legal representation?

8. Publicize the project. You can use a variety of methods such as:

  • ensuring the pro bono policy is disseminated to all attorneys
  • holding a kick-off meeting that highlights the benefits of the program to the attorney and the community
  • developing subsequent info sessions to inform new attorneys about the program
  • sending periodic updates on the program
  • developing and distributing a newsletter
  • placing notices in bar association and other relevant publications

9. Recruit volunteers by using both written information and personal contact. Consider the following methods:

  • holding a brown bag lunch-and-learn program
  • arranging a function where the head of the agency speaks to attorneys
  • providing specialized in-house training on one of the substantive areas
  • arranging for a “government attorney night” at a local clinic where conflict-free cases are handled
  • establishing an annual Law Day recruitment event
  • bringing representatives in from local pro bono programs to discuss their programs

10. Recognize your volunteers. It helps recruit others to participate and presents opportunities for attorneys to improve relations within the community. And don’t forget to invite the media. Some ideas for recognition include:

  • hosting a special reception, luncheon or dinner recognizing outstanding pro bono service
  • hosting an awards ceremony
  • publishing an “honor roll” of all attorneys who contribute a certain amount of hours
  • writing individual thank you letters at the end of the year
  • writing magazine or newsletter articles
  • giving vouchers for free CLE classes for those who served a certain number of hours
  • adding recognition of pro bono work into performance evaluations

11. For government lawyers who are prohibited from practicing law outside the office, offer alternative projects such as:

  • assistance with client interview/intake at outside pro bono program
  • helping with administrative tasks
  • legal education workshops to community groups
  • general community service projects such as tutoring, feeding the homeless, or stream clean-ups