The term pro bono is Latin and is loosely translated as “for the good of the public.” It is a term that applies to any work done by a lawyer at no cost for an individual or group client.
Pro bono lawyers are found in every legal specialty. However, few advertise the fact that they may be willing to provide free legal advice or offer free legal services. Instead, people who are in need of reduced or no cost legal aid must typically search out and find pro bono lawyers in their city or state.
That is not to say that pro bono lawyers are difficult to find. In fact, most law schools teach students that it is in their best interests to routinely take on pro bono cases for people or entities in true need. Rule 6.1 as outlined by the American Bar Association Model Rules recommends that lawyers offer free legal advice and offer free services to people with limited financial means as well as entities like:
- not-for-profit charities
- religious houses
- civic or community groups
- governmental or educational groups that serve people with limited means
Likewise, they should also routinely provide free or low-cost legal aid to people or organizations that seek to secure or safeguard the civil or public rights or liberties of others. Finally, lawyers should consider doing pro bono work if the case involves improving the legal system or the legal profession as a whole.
Once you realize the answer to the question of what does pro bono mean, you may wonder why lawyers would ever offer free legal aid to anyone even those who qualify for help through a legal aid society. After all, lawyers can charge top dollar per hour as well as a retainer fee for their services.
Many lawyers discover that the true pro bono meaning can hold significant power in their professional lives, however, which compels them to offer free legal aid or take on pro bono cases regularly throughout their careers. You may appreciate the efforts of pro bono lawyers more by realizing why many in the legal arena make it a point to take on at least one pro bono case a year.
Reasons for Pro Bono Lawyers to Offer Services
It is true that lawyers today can charge a nominal retainer and hourly fees. It is not uncommon for people to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars for the services of a typical attorney in any legal specialty.
So why would a lawyer volunteer time with a legal aid society and do all of the work in a case at no charge? As mentioned, the pro bono meaning that every law student learns is that these efforts are for the good of the public.
Without lawyers who are willing to do free work for people in genuine need, society as a whole may suffer. Taking on cases at little to no cost levels the proverbial playing field for everyone especially for people or groups who have limited financial means or who are seeking justice that is for the greater good of society.
More specifically, these types of cases give lawyers of all skill levels the chance to perfect their courtroom and negotiation skills. They gain experience that will come in handy when representing other clients particularly those who do pay top dollar for retainer and hourly fees. These cases serve as a type of continuing education without the lawyers having to go back to school or attend workshops or conferences.
Likewise, the opportunity to take free cases for people in need boosts a lawyer’s resume. In fact, newly graduated law students as well as those who are looking for positions with lucrative law firms find that doing pro bono work bolsters their resumes and gives them credentials that could help them land better-paying jobs in the legal profession.
Even more, these types of cases typically do not take a lot of time and can be completed in a matter of weeks or months. Pro bono lawyers do not have to spend years arguing a case for which they are not receiving compensation. In the end, they get the publicity, experience, and satisfaction of representing clients in need at no cost.
Finally, many pro bono lawyers offer their services simply out of a sense of duty to the public. They realize how fortunate they are to be in a position to help as well as a career that garners them high incomes. They may want to pay it forward and to help people who would otherwise have no legal avenue to pursue justice or compensation in court.
As mentioned; however, most pro bono lawyers do not advertise their services at no cost. They largely take on work for which they will be paid and fairly compensated. It is up to you to find lawyers who are willing to take on your case for little to no cost.
It is also true that your efforts may take some time and dedication on your part if you want to find a lawyer who will work diligently for you and help you achieve the results you want in court. You can make the search process easier by keeping some simple research strategies in mind before you start looking for pro bono lawyers in your city or state.
Searching for Pro Bono Lawyers in Your Area
Finding a lawyer who is willing to help you at little to no cost can be a challenge. You more than likely will not find listings for attorneys advertising services for free in the phone book. Likewise, you may not even find low or no cost attorneys in your area online.
Instead, you have to use different search strategies than what you would use when looking for a lawyer who expects you to pay for his or her services. You should start your search for a low or no cost attorney by calling your state bar association or visiting its website.
The state bar association typically will have a list of lawyers on hand who are willing to offer free services to low-income clients. They may only be willing to take on these kinds of cases once or twice a year, however. When you call or go online to the state bar website, you should find out if the lawyers on the list are taking new pro bono clients or if they have met their quotas for the year.
You also may find free legal services at the nearest law school. Law students who are in their final two years of school are allowed to serve clients under the guidance of their professors who themselves are licensed attorneys.
Law school students cannot typically accept criminal or family court cases. However, they can help with legal matters like:
- power of attorney
- debt collections
They also may be able to represent you in court and before the judge who is presiding over your case. Law school clinics typically accept cases from September through April. They do not take cases during the summer months when school is in recess.
When to Retain Pro Bono Lawyers
Even with all of this information, you may wonder whether or not you should attempt to retain a low or no cost attorney. Do you meet the criteria and would an attorney take your case for little to no payment if you do qualify for this kind of legal help?
As mentioned, lawyers who offer this kind of assistance typically will agree to represent one or two clients per year who are low-income and in need of representation. If you have a lower than normal income or have no income at all, you may qualify as a non-paying client.
To prove that you have little to no income, you may be required to provide documentation like tax forms or public assistance award letters. You also may need to undergo a brief background check to verify that you have modest financial capabilities.
You also may qualify for help if you are the victim of domestic violence and have no way to pay for legal services. In such cases, the abusive spouse may control the couple’s finances. Lawyers are often willing to help domestic violence victims file for divorce, protection from abuse orders, and other legal matters until the judge can separate the couple’s finances or order the abusive spouse to pay for an attorney and court costs.
If your case involves the advocacy or protection of civil, religious, or public rights, you may need to discuss at length the nature of your legal matter before an attorney agrees to represent you. The type of case you want to pursue can greatly impact the reputation of the lawyer. You need to prove that you have a legitimate legal concern and that the outcome of the case will impact society as a whole.