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August 25, 2017 Dialogue

Marketing Strategies For Pro Bono Opportunities

By David Daniels, Nancy Drane, Susan M. Hoffman, and Kathleen Wach

Interest in pro bono work, already on a steady upswing due to multiple initiatives of the legal profession, has reached a new level of intensity. As lawyers are inundated with national and local news, they are increasingly moved to get involved. In addition to new initiatives in immigration and policy work, the hugely compelling legal needs of our local communities continue to grow, while low-income clients and legal services providers alike anticipate cuts to the programs and services that keep them afloat.

At the same time, the private practice of law is experiencing industry-wide changes and its own set of pressures relative to pro bono engagement. A growing competitive market and increasing associate salaries are upping expectations for lawyers to maintain and increase a robust portfolio of billable work as well as devote time to other nonbillable tasks, such as training and client development. While lawyers want to get involved in meaningful pro bono work to help shrink the justice gap, they are looking for more predictable ways to do so. At some firms, lawyers are experiencing mandatory pro bono requirements. More than ever, lawyers who manage pro bono programs, in law firms and on the legal service provider side, need efficient and effective methods of placing available cases with willing (and well-suited) pro bono lawyers.

Because of these challenges, effective engagement in pro bono and the community at large is more important than ever. Although legal services providers are ramping up and tapping the collective well of the pro bono community, the question becomes-with all of the competing concerns, how do we get the attention of the even greater number of volunteers we need to work on the mounting number of important cases? That's where marketing strategies come into play.

Why Pro Bono?

As any marketing expert appreciates, the first thing you need to know is your audience and what drives them. Marketing pro bono matters is no different. Understanding attorney motivation is key to designing attractive pro bono opportunities. In 2015, members of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel conducted a study of large law firm associates to learn more about pro bono motivation.[1] Sixty percent (60%) of respondents said that they do pro bono work because it makes them feel good about being a lawyer. Other top motivators included being passionate about a substantive issue, seeing pro bono as a professional or ethical responsibility, having an interest in improving access to justice, and seeking skills development for advancement at the firm. Additional reasons for pro bono engagement included the opportunity for client contact, having greater autonomy than is typical on a billable matter, and firm policies that required or encouraged pro bono work.

Similarly, the ABA Standing Committee for Pro Bono and Public Service conducted a survey about pro bono involvement and attitudes. [2] In that survey, eighty percent (81%) of respondents said it was either somewhat or extremely important for attorneys to do pro bono. Helping people in need was a high motivator, as was a feeling of ethical duty and obligation, and an opportunity to work with clients. From both surveys, a picture develops of a lawyer community motivated by their hearts to advance justice while also seeking to use pro bono to hone their professional skills.

Making it Manageable

With this volunteer attorney profile in mind, there is still the task of ensuring an actual pro bono case placement. Here is where marketing the pro bono opportunities as 'manageable' becomes critical. We all know that pro bono work, while rewarding, can also be challenging. The Association of Pro Bono Counsel study found some common concerns among respondents. Eighty-five percent (85%) of respondents were concerned about not having time to do pro bono considering their other professional obligations. Other top concerns included worrying about making mistakes, the perceived difficulty of working with pro bono clients, the lack of matters that would engage the skills of transactional attorneys, and for some, tensions over whether pro bono was in fact encouraged or would be credited by the firm. Additional concerns centered around training, supervision, and mentoring, and a lack of connection between pro bono opportunities and the specific type of professional skills lawyers sought to develop. Nonetheless, virtually all the lawyers surveyed wanted to do pro bono work. Only one percent (1.54%) were not interested in pro bono at all.

Similarly, respondents in the ABA Standing Committee for Pro Bono and Public Service survey cited lack of time, concern about a perceived lack of relevant skills, and a general lack of information about the requirements of a pro bono representation as barriers to engaging in pro bono. Put together, these concerns portray a desire by lawyers for more predictable pro bono opportunities with manageable time demands that can be weaved into the lawyers’ daily practices. Attorneys are also seeking assurances that, with support and training, their skills can be used effectively.

So, what to do with this information? Here are some ideas for pro bono professionals to consider:

Strategies for Pro Bono Counsel

For pro bono professionals within a law firm or other institution, culture is key. Pro bono professionals should start from the beginning, ensuring that new hires know that public service is an institutional expectation. During orientation, review the history of pro bono at the firm or organization and its importance to firm culture. Ensure that management and leadership emphasize the importance of pro bono in their introductory remarks to new staff. Pro bono can be presented not only as a professional responsibility, but also as a key component of an organization's identity and business development strategy. New associates should be counseled that doing pro bono is not only good for the community, but it will also make the associate a better lawyer enabling the firm to better serve its clients.

Use the competitive nature of the market to your advantage. Foster a healthy sense of competition not only within the firm and among offices or practice groups, but also in the larger legal market. Platforms like the American Lawyer’s Am Law 100 or local recognition events like pro bono honor rolls that acknowledge firms that have a certain percentage of pro bono participation (e.g., firms where at least 40 percent of attorneys devoted 50 hours or more to pro bono) can be effective tools in activating more pro bono involvement.

Targeted recruitment can also be helpful in increasing pro bono activity. Meet with new hires and even more seasoned attorneys to discern areas of interest. Conduct interviews with individual attorneys to help them develop personalized pro bono plans or goals. Help them find pro bono opportunities that fit with their areas of interest, and allow for creativity within your pro bono portfolio if those interests fall outside of the standard list of opportunities. Try to engage supervising partners or partner mentors in helping attorneys stay true to these plans.  

Finally, be strategic. Connect pro bono practice with the types of core competencies attorney development teams are targeting for firm staff. Provide a list to supervising partners, firm professional development staff, or associates themselves of ways pro bono cases can help develop desired legal skills (e.g., if you want to strengthen oral advocacy skills, then take a pro bono case that involves frequent court appearances). In addition, think about issue-area synergies. Work with practice groups to develop pro bono opportunities that overlap with professional interests and areas of expertise. For example, market medical-legal partnership pro bono opportunities to your health care group.

Selling Pro Bono

The work of marketing pro bono is not all up to pro bono professionals at firms or within other private law practice settings. Legal services providers also need to be savvy about how to best forge positive pro bono relationships. This isn’t always easy. With so many pro bono opportunities out there, legal services providers must make their opportunities stand out. And it is often difficult to assuage the concerns pro bono attorneys have about taking on new pro bono opportunities, whether based on a complicated fact pattern, a legal area unfamiliar to the potential pro bono attorney, or an inability to predict time and required duties.

First, make it personal. Talk to your potential pro bono attorneys-have a phone call and learn about their interests and to make personal connections. Develop a volunteer management system to keep track of individuals you speak with and their areas of interest, language skills, experience level, etc. Some legal services providers host special events for their legal volunteers. As you learn about volunteers, don’t forget the small, personal details. If your potential volunteer’s spouse is a special education teacher, note that for when an education-related case becomes available. Keep track of who has experience with certain types of cases. Track training attendance so that you can target trainees when cases become available. To track this data, use something simple like a spreadsheet, or utilize existing case management or donor management tools.

Recruit ambassadors at the private law firms who can help expand the profile of your pro bono opportunities at their firms. Consider creating a junior leadership advisory board at your organization specifically to help cultivate these ambassadors. Use a multi-tiered approach, engaging staff, associates, partners, and firm leadership.  

Tell them what you want. Take the time to create a clear narrative of each case. Keep case descriptions as short as possible. Make the cases as doable as possible by offering robust training, on-going mentoring, and support. Provide checklists to make the expectations for legal work clear, and offer model pleadings, guides, and manuals that can be easily referenced remotely on your website or a similar platform.

Finally, put pro bono in context. At a time when attorneys are particularly motivated by national and international issues, ensure that individual pro bono opportunities seem part of a larger movement. Market domestic violence cases as a way to address violence against women; special education cases as a way to advance equal access to quality, public education; housing conditions cases to help keep safe, affordable housing in the community, etc. Hold pro bono events that present pro bono as a tangible way to get involved. Recently, the Washington Council of Lawyers and the DC Lawyers Chapter of the American Constitution Society held an event entitled "Activism through Pro Bono" that featured a panel of pro bono and change-making experts. The event, which also featured a pro bono fair where lawyers could identify specific pro bono opportunities, was extremely popular.

One Strategy: The Pyramid of Placement

We all are familiar with the case list, a common vehicle to share pro bono opportunities widely. But how can we make these lists the most effective? What approaches do law firms and legal services providers use to bring these lists of cases alive and make them real-and appealing-for potential volunteers?

The answer: when it comes to describing individual pro bono opportunities, be strategic. Consider who your audience is. Perhaps it is the entire firm, or maybe it is an individual lawyer, or a specific practice group. Once you have identified your audience, make sure the title of your marketing blurb is catchy and captures the attention of your intended recipients. For individual cases, look for a compelling fact or set of facts, like the vulnerable circumstances of the client, and encapsulate that information in a phrase that will grab the reader. For example: TRANSITION AGE FOSTER YOUTH THREATENED WITH WRONGFUL EVICTION NEEDS PRO BONO ADVOCATE TO WRITE STRONG CEASE AND DESIST LETTER. Alternatively, you can emphasize in your title the skill development opportunity that the matter might offer.  For example: OBTAIN TRIAL EXPERIENCE WHILE HELPING ELDERLY DISABLED VETERAN AVOID HOMELESSNESS.

Think strategically and creatively about the additional facts you will want to highlight in the body of the blurb, including in what order, to affect the maximum impact on the reader. Also, be sure to do some digging into the case intake or other materials you have at your disposal to ensure you have adequately described the legal work and provided a time estimate for its completion. In the end, always make sure what you describe sounds manageable. Also, think back to what motivates pro bono service-things like making a difference and developing professional skills-and be sure you have highlighted all the appropriate categories.

In addition to these more case specific communication strategies, it is important to look at the quality and impact of your broader communication platforms. Using a visually appealing newsletter-type format that nicely captures ways to get involved and then circulating that piece widely can often yield a substantial response.

We all know, however, that sending out a list of cases or a newsletter isn’t what gets the job done. Often, a more personal level of interaction with your targeted audience is required.  For this, there are multiple strategies. The Pyramid of Pro Bono Placement (see graphic) reflects a tiered-approach to case placement, starting wide and then narrowing in on individual attorneys who might be interested. The increase in marketing focus as you move up the pyramid allows you to define and employ a more direct communication strategy if a broader outreach methodology is ineffective. The selection of which individual attorneys to target as you move up the pyramid will depend upon several factors, including the personal outreach you’ve done in the past, and your data tracking on areas of interest in the pro bono community, as discussed above.

Don't forget the personal touch. Sending a targeted e-mail to a single lawyer can often be the most effective tool. Personalize your outreach to demonstrate this isn't just a cut and paste or mass e-mail. Cite the attorney’s interest in a particular area or experience with a type of pro bono case. For example: "Dear John. How is your summer going? Is Stephen still taking Spanish at school? I wanted to let you know about a case that I think would be a great fit for you and would benefit from your experience." And if all else fails, pick up the phone or make a personal office visit.

The Role of Recognition

Finally, think about the role recognition can play in marketing pro bono. Individual attorneys and firms or organizations are often motivated to do more when their work is celebrated. Before selecting a recognition approach, think about your goals. What are you trying to achieve through your recognition? Are you just thanking an individual attorney, or do you want more individual attorneys to participate? Do you want to cultivate a stronger relationship with the larger firm or institution, or do you want to educate a specific practice group within a firm about your work?

Your goals should then guide your planning. Think about available platforms, such as an event (either new or pre-existing) where the legal services provider presents the award for pro bono achievement in the recipient's workplace and in front of the recipient's peers. Consider placing a story in the recipient's firm-wide newsletter or a legal publication, or bestowing an award to an individual or a firm at a prominent local bar association event where many others with similar skill sets will be present to learn about your organization’s opportunities. Always be thinking about where you can make the strongest connection between your goals and the chosen platform. For example, if you want to cultivate the larger firm, ensure that your recognition engages firm management at the event. In short, use your creativity here and work closely with the other pro bono professionals involved. 


This is a moment in time when motivation to do pro bono and contribute to the community is high. Marketing is the key to ensuring that you capitalize on that most effectively. Some key concepts to remember, whether you are a pro bono professional in the private law setting or at a legal services provider: know your volunteers, the more personal, the better; use what motivates your firm or attorneys, including advancing professional skills and business goals; be strategic and creative; and most importantly, ensure that pro bono attorneys feel part of a collective movement towards access to justice.

[1] Getting to Yes: Understanding Why Law Firm Attorneys Will or Won’ t Do Pro Bono, Brenna DeVaney (Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom) and Jennifer Kroman (Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton), Equal Justice Conference (May 2015).  

[2] Supporting Justice: Building Knowledge about Pro Bono, April Faith-Slaker (ABA Standing Committee for Pro Bono and Public Service), Equal Justice Conference (May 2017).

David Daniels

Pro Bono Director, Public Counsel

David Daniels is Pro Bono Director at Public Counsel, where for over 11 years he has used his 20 years of experience as a practicing attorney to connect private law firms and practitioners to Public Counsel's mission of providing pro bono legal representation to the most vulnerable members of his community.

Nancy Drane

Executive Director, District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission

Nancy Drane is Executive Director of the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission, where she works to promote equal access to justice for low- and moderate-income District residents. Prior to joining the Commission in November 2016, Nancy worked at Children’s Law Center for 13 years, most recently as its Pro Bono Director.

Susan M. Hoffman

Public Service Partner, Crowell & Moring LLP

Susan M. Hoffman is Public Service Partner at Crowell & Moring LLP, where she promotes, supervises, and participates in the pro bono work performed by the firm’s attorneys. Prior to joining Crowell in 1988, Susie was an active pro bono attorney at another D.C.-based law firm.

Kathleen Wach

Pro Bono Counsel, Miller & Chevalier Chartered

Kathleen Wach is Pro Bono Counsel at Miller & Chevalier Chartered, where she is responsible for coordinating and supporting the diverse pro bono work of the firm. Prior to joining the firm in 1999, Kitty was an attorney at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, and Neighborhood Legal Services Program.