Pro bono service allows individuals who otherwise cannot afford legal services the opportunity to have them free of charge. Many attorneys engage in this service because they want to give back to the community or because they are encouraged to do so by their state bar or by an employer. The American Bar Association’s Model Rule 6.1 provides that “[e]very lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least fifty (50) hours of pro bono public legal services per year.” The requirements vary by state. For example, New Jersey’s Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 provides that “[e]very lawyer has a professional responsibility to render public interest legal service.” New Jersey’s State Bar Association Pro Bono Task Force, however, has proposed rules aimed at providing more services to indigent clients. See “New Court Rules and Amendments Proposed re: Pro Bono Practice of Law,” N.J. L.J., Mar. 12, 2014. New York has taken the idea of pro bono service even further, as it is the first state to adopt a pro bono requirement for new bar members, in which each candidate must complete at least 50 hours of qualifying pro bono work before applying for admission to practice.
Pro bono service provides a direct and immediate impact to those populations that may need it. Given the current economic atmosphere, there are more individuals that fit into the category of needing pro bono legal service. This phenomenon is due in part to shrinking government budgets, resulting in a decrease of funding to the courts, nonprofit organizations, and legal-aid societies. For example, in May 2013, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Court reported that budgetary cuts to courts in that state have been more profound than to any other institution in Illinois.
In some cases, a pro bono attorney’s help may signify the difference between life and death, prison and freedom, or bail or no bail. Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court unanimously found in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963),that the Sixth Amendment guarantees to every individual the right to an attorney in the defense of a felony charge. But because of budget cuts, many public defenders’ offices lack essential resources. Some argue that the principles imbued in this seminal case have been subsumed in the economic decline of state governments and have fallen victim to politics.
Consequently, pro bono service is extremely important because attorneys do not have to become a part of a socioeconomic, political, or philosophical debate; rather, attorneys can pull up their sleeves and select what segment of the population they would like to provide assistance to and potentially effectuate change for. Involvement in pro bono services by private practitioners supports financially and operationally strained court systems, nonprofit organizations, law-school clinic programs, and legal-aid services.