Pro Bono with Ease: Giving Back and Giving Your All

Robert Gottfried
Do you have an interest in family law but sit at a desk redlining commercial contracts all day?

Do you have an interest in family law but sit at a desk redlining commercial contracts all day?

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An easy and fulfilling way to give back is to use your law degree and license to help your community. ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 states that every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those who are unable to pay and suggests that every lawyer aspires to provide 50 hours of free legal services to people of limited means or charitable or community organizations each year. Pro bono legal work benefits your community and your clients and is an excellent way to develop more work experience in and out of the courtroom in areas of law you might not practice in your day job.

Pro bono comes from the Latin phrase pro bono publico, meaning “for the public good.” Pro bono work is legal work, and therefore requires the same elements of professionalism as your nine-to-five job. Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your pro bono experience while still maintaining your professional duties toward your clients.

Communication

Communication with your pro bono client is key. Make sure that you outline not only the scope of your representation of the client but also what their expectations of you should be. This is a perfect time to set boundaries with your client—what time can you be reached to discuss your client’s case? How often should your client expect a progress report from you? What information will you need from your client to handle their case effectively? Just as you would for any paying client, setting these ground rules from the beginning can save a lot of headaches further into your client’s case.

Diligence

Pro bono clients might not be paying clients, but that certainly does not mean their case deserves less attention. They are owed the same level of professionalism and diligence as a paying client. This means you should return phone calls and emails promptly, calendar all appropriate court deadlines, and adequately prepare for each court appearance. This also means making sure that you have the time to dedicate to your pro bono client’s case. Managing your workload is essential to ensuring that your pro bono client is receiving the best representation possible.

Competence

Do you have an interest in family law but sit at a desk redlining commercial contracts all day? One of the draws of pro bono work for many lawyers is that it allows us to work in an area of law that we might not otherwise have exposure to. Pro bono work is an excellent way to gain experience in other areas of law while providing essential legal services to the community. However, pro bono representation still requires competent legal representation. Before you engage with a client, make sure that you are confident in the area of law in which your client is seeking help. Dedicate time to researching your client’s case thoroughly and be sure the position you eventually advocate rests on proper interpretations of the law and good faith arguments.

Resources

Want to give pro bono work a try? The ABA has a wealth of resources for attorneys looking to give back. Start with the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, or register to give legal advice through the ABA’s Free Legal Answers platform in your state. Your local or state bar organizations are also great resources and can direct you to community organizations looking for lawyers offering free legal assistance. Also, check with your law firm or employer for any opportunities. Many employers have firm-level pro bono programs, and some firms will allow associates with billable hour requirements to use a portion of pro bono hours to meet those goals. Finally, the ABA’s Center for Professional Responsibility is your source of information for any questions related to your duties toward a pro bono client.

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Robert Gottfried is staff counsel at the American Bar Association Center for Professional Responsibility in Chicago, Illinois.