Section of Litigation

Pro Bono Basics

If you are new to pro bono work, please keep in mind the following:

Training: When taking on a pro bono representation in an area of the law that is new to you, be sure to participate in appropriate training. Training is often available from the local legal services organizations that refer pro bono cases. Free training is also available online from a variety of sources. See the Training Resources section of this page for links to some of these sources.

Conflict Checks: As with any other client, a thorough conflict check should be run before the client is formally engaged to ensure that there are no conflicts that would affect the representation. A conflict check should be completed even if you think that it is unlikely that a conflict exists. If there is a potential waivable conflict, advise the potential client regarding the conflict and include waiver language in the engagement letter.

Engagement Letters:  Engagement letters laying out the scope of the pro bono representation should be provided to and signed by pro bono clients to make sure there is a mutual understanding about the scope of the engagement and the terms of the relationship. Be thoughtful in describing the scope of the engagement so that there is no confusion. If the client is not comfortable in English, the engagement letter should be translated into the client’s primary language. Engagement letters may be signed by older children and teens themselves. In the case of representation of a young child, a guardian may sign on behalf of the child, or in some cases involving young children it may be appropriate to proceed without an engagement letter.

Ethical Obligations: Keep in mind that the same ethical obligations apply in regard to pro bono clients as would apply for any other clients, including but not limited to the duty of loyalty, the duty of competence, and the duty to maintain confidentiality. Consult your local rules of professional responsibility in regard to any ethical questions that may arise.

Communication: It is important that you communicate clearly and regularly with your pro bono client, as with any other client. In the event of long delays in the representation, such as when waiting for a hearing date or a determination, reach out to your client to touch base and keep in contact. Remind your client early and often to inform you in the event of any change to the client’s address or other contact information.

Relationship with Referral Organization: The organization that referred the client to you may request updates on the status of the case. This information may be important to the organization so that they can report back to funders, etc. You may also want to reach out to the referral organization for substantive advice in the course of the representation. Consider including waiver language in the engagement letter that allows you to provide updates on the status of the case to the referral organization or to consult with the referral organization about the case even if the organization is not serving as formal co-counsel.

Interpretation: If you need to use an interpreter, and your interpreter is not part of your firm or organization, make sure to have the interpreter sign a confidentiality agreement. You may also wish to consult online resources on best practices for working with an interpreter to make sure that your interaction with the interpreter does not interfere with the client feeling included and engaged with you as her attorney.

Communication & Cultural Competency: Sometimes, despite best efforts, we have a hard time communicating with our clients. This can be related to differences in background, culture, or communication style, among other things. If you sense that a communication problem is occurring, or that other cultural issues may be affecting your representation, consult with the organization that referred the client to you.

Disengagement: At the conclusion of the representation be sure to advise the client on any next steps that they may need to take now or in the future, and send a disengagement letter providing that the representation has concluded. You may wish to provide the contact information for the organization that originally referred the case so that the client has a contact for future legal issues that may arise. Let the client know how to obtain a copy of their file if desired.

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