As noted on the Pro Bono page of the American Bar Association (ABA) website:
The term “pro bono” comes from the Latin pro bono publico, which means “for the public good.” The ABA describes the parameters of pro bono for practicing lawyers in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Model Rule 6.1 [Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service] states that lawyers should aspire to render—without fee—at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year, with an emphasis that these services be provided to people of limited means or nonprofit organizations that serve the poor. The rule recognizes that only lawyers have the special skills and knowledge needed to secure access to justice for low-income people, whose enormous unmet legal needs are well documented.
Nearly every state has a professional responsibility rule, whether voluntary or mandatory, that calls on lawyers to render pro bono services. Even aspirational pro bono goals set forth by state bar associations should be given much attention. As the ABA notes, we, as attorneys, are equipped with knowledge and skills that are valuable tools for navigating the legal world, which may feel inaccessible to the most vulnerable in our nation.
Legal clinics provide essential legal services to their local communities. The pandemic was a pivotal point for many legal aid providers throughout the nation. It was a time of so much uncertainty, but it also saw the birth of the virtual legal assistance world.
Courts faced challenges as they were under COVID-19-related restrictions but still needed to ensure equal access to justice. As such, attorneys and litigants were forced to become comfortable with the idea of virtual hearings, depositions, etc. In the legal aid world, we faced similar challenges. Even prior to the pandemic, some programs faced challenges in finding effective ways to reach the most rural populations in their service areas. The pandemic caused not only the courts but also legal aid organizations to rethink their delivery of services.
While technology was seen as a barrier for some of the most vulnerable, many legal aid organizations have found that the lack of access to technology has dwindled due to the changing world. Many clients were able to utilize technological services provided to their children by schools or their local libraries, and they were also able to receive technology assistance from local nonprofits and community partners with computer labs. For example, during the pandemic, we discovered a local nonprofit that helped the most at risk in the community with technology equipment to ensure they had access to justice and public benefits programs. And let us not forget that most phones also come with a camera these days. Thus, while technology was previously seen as a barrier to the access of justice, we do not see that as one of the main barriers to justice in today’s world. One of the largest barriers we have seen is insufficient income to hire an attorney for their services.
Many legal aid organizations have a pro bono program that utilizes private volunteer attorneys to render legal services to those who would otherwise be unable to afford such services. Volunteer attorneys can provide a variety of pro bono services, including full and limited representation. While some attorneys shy away from this type of service because of a colleague’s horror story or the fear that the case might continue for a lengthier time than expected, this is usually not the case. Of course, there can be a bad apple in the bunch, but the truth is the majority of these cases are resolved with a positive experience for both the volunteer attorney and the client.
If you are unsure about the best way to get involved, legal clinics are a great introduction to your local legal aid organization. There are a variety of clinics and models that do not involve volunteer expenses. Additionally, your legal assistance concludes at the end of the clinic unless you desire to provide more legal assistance, which is always appreciated but not expected. Clinics can be held during the day, during the evening, at lunchtime, and even on the weekend.
Intake clinics can be held at a local legal aid office, community center, domestic violence shelter, homeless shelter, or anywhere many clients are likely to attend. The idea is that we reach as many people as possible at one given time. During this type of clinic, which can be virtual or in-person, the volunteer attorney gathers the pertinent legal facts, determines the client’s goals, and then immediately provides legal advice regarding that legal issue. This is a great opportunity for the general civil practitioner. However, if you are thinking to yourself, “What if I don’t know the answer to the legal question posed?” or “I don’t have knowledge in all areas of law,” fear not! There are intake clinic models where the legal aid staff attorneys are available to discuss the cases with you so that, together, you can determine the best course of action.
With forms clinics, the legal services provider recruits private attorneys and law students to assist pro se litigants with completing their pleadings and initiating their cases. Family law is an area that greatly benefits from this type of clinic.
This type of clinic can be run in a variety of ways. For example, the clinic may be run by a legal services staff attorney, with one volunteer attorney assisting one client at a time. During this time, the volunteer usually asks clients how they would like to fill in the blanks in the pleadings. The volunteer explains the overall process so that the client is aware of the next step. Law students are also an integral part of this clinic. While law students can assist in completing the pleading, an attorney, whether the staff attorney or the volunteer attorney, will be required to review the pleadings and provide the client with an overview of the legal process in the event that the client asks for legal advice or information. Such an arrangement can prove particularly useful when there is a group of law students interested in volunteering and insufficient volunteer attorneys. Help is still needed, and this is one way to meet that challenge.
Another format can be a “teaching model.” This usually entails a volunteer attorney teaching clients in a classroom-styled room how to complete their pleadings. This is an excellent opportunity where one person can make an enormous difference as multiple people are being assisted at once.
The forms clinic can be hosted both in-person and virtually. Hosting in-person clinics at the local legal aid office, a local library, or even the courthouse have been popular options. Virtual clinics present more tech issues to consider and require more preparation, but the process of volunteering is similar. Instead of completing the forms for clients with pen and paper, volunteers complete the forms electronically on their computers utilizing screen sharing.
Finally, assistance from forms clinics is invaluable for the population that faces language barriers. Hosting clinics with volunteers who speak different languages reaches those most vulnerable who feel the justice system is already a mountain they cannot climb simply because they do not speak English.
Housing is another area of poverty law where volunteers can be of tremendous help. A housing clinic can be done virtually or in-person. As a volunteer, the attorney can provide one-on-one assistance to the client in need. Alternatively, a group of law students can handle the intake portion of the clinic by collecting the legal facts and then speaking with the volunteer attorney in a separate, private room. The volunteer attorney and law student can then discuss the facts and the appropriate legal advice to be given. Thereafter, the law student can “relay” the legal advice provided under the supervision of the volunteer attorney. This is another example of being able to provide a significant impact with limited resources. Additionally, this provides possible mentor opportunities with law students.
Housing clinics, along with intake and forms clinics, are usually held on a recurring basis, whether that be weekly, biweekly, or monthly, giving lawyers a wonderful way to fulfill their pro bono obligations for the year. However, even this type of commitment may seem a little daunting at times, especially for the young associate who must climb what feels like the Mount Everest of billable hours. Fear not, for there are other legal clinics available as well.
Legal Fairs with Mini-Clinics
Perhaps you have a particular niche and would like to volunteer at a clinic but cannot find one that fits your specialty. Or perhaps you do not have the availability to participate in a recurring clinic. A helpful solution for you might be participating in a clinic at a legal fair. At legal fairs there can be several mini-clinics, such as advance directives, family law, bankruptcy, and probate, all occurring at the same time. If you cannot find a particular clinic that suits your area, reach out to the legal fair organizer to see if your area can be included as a clinic. The remarkable thing about this type of event is that attendees like to visit multiple clinics throughout the duration of the legal fair. These clinics usually occur only annually or twice a year, as the organizing legal aid program invests a great deal of time and resources to ensure a successful event.
While some clinics are held year-round, others may be held to coincide with a particular month of celebration. For example, local legal aid organizations may host bilingual clinics during Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 through October 15.
Did you know that the ABA designates the last week in October each year as National Pro Bono Week? Mark your calendars for the 2023 dates: October 22–28. This is a wonderful time to explore what pro bono opportunities are offered by your local pro bono partners, as there are clinics and celebratory functions occurring to “give back” and celebrate the volunteers who make pro bono programs a success.
Beyond Legal Clinics
Legal clinics are just some of the ways that volunteers can get involved. The reality is that legal aid organizations have limited resources. Even with staff attorneys handling poverty law–related issues, staff attorneys are unable to meet all the needs of the most vulnerable populations in their service area. Through the help of volunteer attorneys, we can reach the most at risk. There are times when a volunteer attorney may identify a clinic client who clearly cannot navigate the system on his or her own. Perhaps this person has a learning disability, or there is a large disparity of resources and income in a divorce matter. If such people are identified by a volunteer attorney, they may be able to receive additional assistance through the legal aid provider. For clients who do not meet these criteria, the volunteer attorney can empower them to move forward to the resolution of their legal issue. Such clients might have come to the clinic without any idea of where to start; they can leave the clinic with the feeling that “I can do this.” They now have the tools and knowledge to help themselves.
Whether you are a partner, associate, retired attorney, or law student, there are pro bono opportunities available to you. If you do not see an opportunity that fits your practice area or interests, contact your pro bono provider to develop an opportunity. Legal aid organizations love to work with the private sector and law schools to maximize resources to ameliorate the lack of access to justice. Pro bono programs can work with you to host your firm or school for a particular legal clinic.
You Can Be the Difference
The need for volunteer attorneys is critical these days. Even more in demand are the volunteer attorneys who speak additional languages besides English. Please mention your language abilities to your local legal aid organization. They may have specific clinics tailored toward non-English-speaking clients; such clinics can be difficult to staff with volunteer attorneys. I can tell you from experience that when clients hear you speak to them in their native language, the sense of relief in their eyes says it all.
We, as attorneys, have a moral obligation to give back to our community. The opportunities to give back are endless. Please check with your local legal aid organization and ask about ways to get involved. Legal clinics provide pro bono opportunities that not only empower the clients but also create a ripple of change. Like the ripple in the ocean, your pro bono service, no matter how big or small, can affect generations to come. We all may feel like we do not have the time to “give back,” but we can make time. We can reprioritize our schedule. Instead of watching a movie, you can spend that time volunteering, whether once a month or at the annual legal fair.
I implore you to volunteer for a legal clinic. Let us leave a legacy of giving, a legacy of making a difference, no matter how big or small. We have the knowledge, as lawyers and lawyers-in-training, to be the difference.