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Tips for Navigating the Pro Bono Waters

Vanessa Offutt and Antar Vaughan

Tips for Navigating the Pro Bono Waters
Abstract Aerial Art via Getty Images

Providing pro bono representation is one of the most fulfilling ways to use one’s law degree to help those in true need. Nonetheless, working with a pro bono client has its own share of nuances, interesting scenarios, and highs and lows that may create some rough waters for the greenest of attorneys and even the more experienced attorneys. To help navigate the pro bono waters, we put together a few tips that will allow for smooth sailing.

First Steps

Acquaint Yourself with the Law

Prior to taking on a case, familiarize yourself with the area of law that you will be delving into—especially if it is an area in which you do not routinely practice. Do not be afraid to reach out to colleagues for assistance or guidance. Also, do not forget to look into whether there are any legal aid clinics, continuing legal education (CLE) courses, or general CLEs about the area of law that can be of assistance.

Understand the Client’s Goals

Once you have familiarized yourself with the law, introduce yourself to the pro bono client to get a better idea of the client’s view of case, the issues as seen by the client, and what result the client seeks. Whether a pro bono case or not, you must always set firm and realistic expectations for the client.

Explain to the client the scope of your representation. Be clear on what issues you will be assisting your client with and, more important, what issues you will not be assisting your client with. For instance, the client may have a dispute in a landlord-tenant case that is related solely to living conditions. In this scenario, you should specify that you are not representing the client for personal injury issues that may have arisen from the living condition issues (e.g., health issues and medical bills from mold in the home).

Do not assume that what you think is the best legal outcome is the same as what your client wants. Make sure you are clear on what your client is hoping to get out of the legal matter. Here is an example of a client goal being different from your assumed or preferred resolution: Due to certain facts in a family law case, you may feel there is a strong argument for seeking sole parental custody of the child; however, your client may want to reach an agreement to a certain time-sharing schedule with the child instead.

Run a Conflict Check

Attorneys sometimes overlook this necessity in the pro bono context. However, do not forget that a pro bono client is still a client. So, whether you are picking up a pro bono case from a legal aid organization or on your own, you will want to make sure to run an internal conflict check before formally agreeing to represent your pro bono client.

Draft a Clear Engagement Letter

Once you have a grasp of the issues, feel comfortable that you have explained your role to your client, and have ensured there are no conflicts, make sure you prepare an engagement letter that clearly outlines what you will (and, by omission, will not) be doing. This protects both you and your client. While many attorneys or law firms may have standard language for their pro bono engagements, be sure to tailor each engagement letter to the specifics of your case. Explicitly state the scope of your representation. Be clear about who your client is, especially if there are multiple defendants or family members involved in the matter. Outline what the case is about, the limited scope of your assistance, and how far in the ligation your representation will go (e.g., trial, appeals), as clients may have a variety of legal and non-legal problems that are not covered by your representation.


Be Patient and Avoid Legalese

Representing a pro bono client can be very different than representing your usual client base. Regardless of the degree of your client’s sophistication, take time to explain the process to your client and do your best to explain why you may be asking for certain information. Help your client understand that you are asking the “hard” questions and asking for all the relevant materials only because you want to provide the best representation possible.

Explain the importance of confidentiality and the attorney-client privilege. Let your client know that what he or she shares with you is confidential and will not be shared with anyone else unless your client gives permission to do so. Also, let your client know that he or she cannot share what you discuss with him or her with anyone—even family members or close friends.

Although it may seem as though it goes without saying, be sure to have a serious conversation with your client about what you will need from him or her for you to assist with the case. Without using legal jargon, explain the importance of “proof” and the need to have all the facts or as much information as possible. Emphasize the importance of evidence (e.g., texts, emails, voice messages), and be sure the client understands not to throw out or delete anything.

Stress the client’s responsibility to keep you informed and updated. This includes informing you about any updates with the issue, providing you with whatever documentation you require for the case, and keeping you updated as to the client’s correct contact information.

Decide on the Mode or Modes of Communication

Figure out the best mode of communication with your client—whether it be phone calls, email, or texting. Ask your client whether he or she has access to the internet, access to a computer or printer, or a smartphone. Understanding this will help you be most effective in communicating with the client.

Be as flexible as possible. Consider the client’s work schedule or other responsibilities, such as child care or financial restraints. Work with the client to decide what are the best days and times to reach him or her, with the understanding that those days and times may change on your client’s end due to circumstances beyond your client’s control. For example, if your client is involved in a domestic violence matter, make sure the communication medium you choose is safe and not accessible by anyone else.

Working the Case

Prepare Your Client for Court Hearings

Be sure to explain the potential need for your client to appear for court hearings, which may require him or her to request time off work. Give your client a rundown as to what to expect on the days he or she may need to make an in-court appearance (e.g., how long it may take, what to wear, how to address the court, who will speak when). As most courts are still conducting virtual hearings, be sure to explain the differences between remote court procedures during COVID-19 and in-person court procedures and what the client can expect in the different settings.

Set Aside Time for Your Case

Pro bono cases take time because most times your client is wholly unfamiliar with the law or the way litigation works. Understand that calls with your client will likely take longer than usual and that working on the matter may not be a quick in-and-out process. Coming to terms with this at the beginning of your case will better help you prepare and will keep your pro bono case from becoming overwhelming or frustrating.

Enjoy What You Are Doing

Have fun digging into a new area of law. Enjoy the fact that you are helping someone who may not otherwise be able to enjoy the protections of our great legal system. You are ensuring that that person’s rights, voice, and outlook are presented in the best light possible.

Pro bono work is meaningful and rewarding, as it serves the legal needs of an underserved community. With these tips in mind, hopefully you will be better prepared to successfully navigate the waters of providing pro bono assistance and will enjoy the gratifying experience of representing a pro bono client. So go out there and pick up a pro bono case!