The term “pro bono” comes from the Latin phrase “pro bono publico” which means for the public good. It refers to professionals providing a specialized service for those who otherwise would be unable to afford it.
Attorneys, although paid for their work, may choose to volunteer their time, education and counsel for free or at a reduced rate to economically disadvantaged individuals. Most often, however, attorneys offer their services for no charge when offering a pro bono service.
The current need for legal services for the poor is astounding. At least 40 percent of low to intermediate income households experience a legal problem each year, according to a study by the American Bar Association.
Despite this great need, only 20 percent of these low-income households’ legal needs are met. But the American Bar Association ethical rules do recommend lawyers offer a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono services annually. Some state bar associations require fewer hours.
Representation of low-income individuals in civil cases is a crucial need. Some broader pro bono services include representation of charitable organizations, civil rights work, activities for improving the legal system, and legal services for religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations. Frequently, pro bono clients are referred by a friend, family member or a type of organized pro bono program. In fact, in a study in 2009 by the American Bar Association, 75 percent of those who offered pro bono services did not seek out those opportunities but the opportunities found them.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr. once said, “Equal justice under law is not just a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society . . . It is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”
In 2004, a similar one-year study the American Bar Association conducted discovered some of the motives and the obstacles for lawyers performing pro bono work. A professional sense of duty along with the personal satisfaction received from the work were reasons noted by 70 percent of the lawyers surveyed. The next significant motivator noted by 43 percent was acknowledging the needs of the poor and responding to their specific requests for assistance.
Among the obstacles that hold lawyers back from offering pro bono services are lack of time, lack of specific expertise and skills in the required area, and employer-related issues like billable hours expectations. Those whose employers encouraged pro bono services were more likely to perform them. Where the employers weren’t in favor, very few engaged in pro bono activities.
Clearly, lawyers have a strong sense of personal duty in their profession to help those in need. Equally as evident is the need for these services to be rendered. In response, law schools are increasingly emphasizing the importance of pro bono contributions. They are seeking to instill in their students an obligation to public service as a part of their law career. In fact, many schools require pro bono participation for graduation requirements or have formal, coordinated pro bono volunteer programs.
The American Bar Association is currently seeking to motivate employers to make pro bono a priority in their workplace. They also want to offer strategies to organizations and associations on how to best recruit attorneys as volunteers since these are obviously key in connecting those in need with willing pro bono attorneys. As extra incentive each year, the American Bar Association presents five awards to individual lawyers and institutions that have demonstrated outstanding commitment to volunteer legal services.
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