Pro Bono Publico
Written by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service
When society confers the privilege to practice law on an individual, he or she accepts the responsibility to promote justice and to make justice equally accessible to all people. Thus, all lawyers should aspire to render some legal services without fee or expectation of fee for the good of the public. Prospective students should be mindful of this responsibility when considering law as a career. When choosing a law school, it is important to evaluate whether a particular school will supply the necessary foundation for achieving their goals relating to pro bono. Many schools offer opportunities in career-related public resources, pro bono programming or both. The ABA Standards and Rules for Approval of Law Schools require schools to provide opportunities for students to participate in pro bono activities.
What is Pro Bono?
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 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 an ethical rule that calls upon lawyers to render pro bono services.
In the law school setting, pro bono generally refers to student provision of voluntary, law-related services to people of limited means or to community-based nonprofit organizations, for which the student does not receive academic credit or pay.
The Need for Pro Bono Service
Pro bono opportunities offered by law schools teach students that for the economically disadvantaged, the inability to obtain legal services for basic needs can have dire consequences. Students learn firsthand that for many people, pro bono legal assistance is vital to maintaining minimum levels of basic needs such as government benefits, income, shelter, utilities, child support and physical protection. The special skills students develop during law school can significantly benefit the underprivileged and bridge the rapidly growing gap between the legal needs of those who cannot afford legal services and the resources available to meet those needs.
Pro Bono Opportunities in Law School
Some schools have designated pro bono programs, staffed by professionals who help match students with outside organizations that do pro bono work. Other schools provide administrative support for student groups engaged in pro bono work while others lack an organized school-wide program but rely on student groups to form and run projects. Typically, the opportunities cover a wide range of legal needs, such as family law, children's issues, consumer fraud, AIDS-related problems, housing, immigration, taxation, environmental law, criminal defense, elder law and death penalty appeals.
At least 39 law schools require students to engage in pro bono or public service as a condition of graduation. These schools may require a specific number of hours of pro bono legal service as a condition of graduation (e.g. 20-75 hours) or they may require a combination of pro bono legal service, clinical work and community-based volunteer work. Law schools with voluntary rather than mandatory pro bono service policies encourage students to assist lawyers and legal aid organizations by offering incentives, such as awards at graduation or special notations on law school transcripts, or by making pro bono an important part of a school's culture.
Benefits of Pro Bono Programs in Law School
Pro bono programs help students develop professionalism and an understanding of a lawyer's responsibility to the community. Participation facilitates student involvement in the community and increases the availability of legal services to needy populations. Students also benefit by increasing their knowledge and marketability, gaining practical experience, developing skills, enhancing their reputations and exploring alternative career opportunities.
Support for Pro Bono and Public Service in Law School
A number of organizations support pro bono and public service in law school, including the ABA Center for Pro Bono, PSJD, Equal Justice Works, and the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).
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