Pro bono lawyers: What to know

Pro Bono Lawyers What To Know
For pro bono lawyers, it’s important to fully understand the ins and outs of pro bono work before undertaking an assignment.

For pro bono lawyers, knowing exactly where you stand when taking on a case can be tricky.

Just about everyone needs sound legal advice at some point in their lives. And while access to justice shouldn’t be contingent upon one’s financial capabilities, it often is – leaving vulnerable members of our society at risk.

That’s why pro bono legal work is one of the greatest contributions you can make to society as a legal professional. 

There are some odd conundrums that happen when it comes to pro bono work, however. For example, some firms allow young attorneys to cut their teeth on pro bono cases despite the fact that pro bono clients can have some of the most complicated, convoluted matters they’ll ever work on. That can leave the lawyers – and their clients – in a precarious situation.

Similarly, when some lawyers represent clients for free, they forget to adhere to the ethical and administrative processes that mark the rest of their practices. Big mistake.

For all legal professionals, it’s important to fully understand the ins and outs of pro bono work before undertaking an assignment. In this post, we’ll break down some of the hard truths that you need to consider before you dive into your first pro bono case.

1. Pro bono work is not practice – it is real legal work

When you decide to take on a pro bono matter, you’re not just taking on a side project. You’re making a commitment to provide the same level of dedication and expertise as you would in a paid case.

And just like it is with your paid clients, your pro bono clients will sometimes take up too much of your time, expect unrealistic results, and generally frustrate the heck out of you. That doesn’t mean you get to bail on them.

The truth about these cases is that they can involve intricate areas of law or novel legal questions – all of which offer invaluable experience for any attorney. Still, your primary objective should always be to achieve the best possible outcome for your client, just as you would in any paid engagement.

Keep in mind, there are huge benefits to treating pro bono matters with the utmost professionalism. It can enhance your reputation in the legal community, contribute positively to your personal growth, and – perhaps most importantly – uphold the integrity of the legal profession.

Each pro bono case is an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to justice and to make a tangible difference in someone’s life. 

That said, if you aren’t prepared to approach each pro bono case with the seriousness and respect it deserves, maybe it’s not the right time for you.

2. Pro bono clients deserve the ethical treatment as other clients

All lawyers have ethical duties to their clients, regardless of each client’s financial situation or how they came to require your services. This ethical standard does not diminish in the context of pro bono work; if anything, it becomes even more crucial. 

Ethical treatment encompasses a range of responsibilities, from maintaining client confidentiality to providing competent representation.

For pro bono clients, the lawyer’s role is not just about navigating the legal system but also about being sensitive to the client’s circumstances, which may include financial hardship, stress, and anxiety about their legal issues.

Communicating clearly, managing expectations, and showing empathy are as important in pro bono cases as they are in paid ones.

Moreover, the quality of your legal representation should never be compromised in these matters. Pro bono clients are entitled to the same diligent representation that paying clients receive.

This includes dedicating adequate time, resources, and legal expertise to their case. Neglecting these responsibilities can have profound impacts on your client’s life and future, not to mention the potential for ethical violations that could tarnish your professional reputation and standing.

3. Pro bono clients can sue you for malpractice

It’s a misconception that taking on a case pro bono shields you from the legal responsibilities and liabilities that come with paid legal work.

In reality, the commitment you make when agreeing to represent a client pro bono carries with it the same potential for malpractice claims as it does with any other client. 

When you represent a client, whether they’re paying or not, you’re expected to adhere to the standard of care that the legal profession demands. 

This potential for liability should not deter you from taking on pro bono work but rather serve as a reminder of the stakes involved. It highlights the need for thorough preparation, diligent work, and adherence to professional standards at all times. 

Protecting yourself and your practice should include making sure that your malpractice insurance covers pro bono work. Most policies do, but it’s always wise to confirm.

4. Follow your passion

When selecting pro bono cases, it’s invaluable to align your efforts with issues that spark your passion.

Engaging in work that resonates with your personal and professional values not only makes the pro bono experience more rewarding but also drives you to provide the highest quality of service.

Whether it’s advocating for environmental justice, supporting tenants’ rights, or defending civil liberties, choosing cases that matter deeply to you enhances your motivation and commitment.

As an added benefit, working on an issue you feel passionately about (but that you don’t otherwise get to handle at your “day job”) can invigorate your entire career. Indeed, this kind of pro bono work may provide a refreshing counterbalance to your normal routine and ignite a lifelong dedication to service and advocacy.

Remember, the impact of pro bono work extends beyond the immediate legal outcomes; it contributes to broader societal change and reflects the core values of justice and equity in the legal profession.

Let your passions guide your pro bono efforts, and embrace the opportunity to contribute to the world in a way that only you can.

5. Your friends are not a pro bono project

While the impulse to help friends or acquaintances with legal advice or representation out of goodwill is understandable, it’s crucial to approach such situations with caution.

Treating informal assistance as pro bono work can blur professional boundaries, create unrealistic expectations, and potentially lead to complications down the road.

For one thing, providing legal help to friends without the proper legal framework – like a formal attorney-client relationship, complete with a retainer agreement – can result in misunderstandings about the scope and limitations of the assistance provided.

Friends may have expectations for outcomes that aren’t realistic or demand more of your time and resources than is reasonable, especially without clear boundaries.

Moreover, such arrangements can complicate matters if the legal advice does not lead to the desired outcome.

Without the formalities that define a professional engagement, including detailed documentation of advice given and decisions made, you could be at risk of disputes or even allegations of malpractice.

The informal nature of the help can make it difficult to defend the quality and extent of your service.

Ultimately, the best way to assist your friends might be to refer them to a colleague or a legal aid organization better suited to their needs – and not to treat them like your own personal pro bono funnel.

This ensures they receive the best possible support while maintaining the integrity of your relationship (not to mention your relationship with your firm).

6. Consider doing your pro bono work through an established organization

Engaging in pro bono work through an established organization offers numerous benefits and can enhance the quality and impact of your voluntary legal services.

These organizations, whether local legal aid societies, nonprofits focused on specific legal issues, or bar association programs, provide a structured framework for pro bono work, ensuring that your efforts are as effective and impactful as possible.

One significant advantage of working with an established organization is the vetting process for clients and cases.

These organizations typically have mechanisms in place to assess the legal needs of potential clients, ensuring that pro bono resources are directed toward those who need them most and where legal assistance can have the greatest impact.

This vetting process helps avoid situations where pro bono efforts might be less necessary or where there might be a better alternative solution available.

Furthermore, these organizations often offer resources and support that can be invaluable, especially for lawyers who are newer to pro bono work or to a particular area of law.

This support can include access to legal research tools, templates for legal documents, and opportunities for training and mentorship. Additionally, being part of a network of professionals engaged in pro bono work can provide a sense of community and mutual support.

Working through an established organization also ensures that your pro bono efforts align with broader efforts to address systemic legal challenges faced by underserved communities.

This collective approach can lead to more significant changes and improvements in access to justice, making your individual contribution part of a larger movement toward legal equity.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that taking on pro bono matters is one of the most rewarding things you can do as an attorney.

So long as you’re prepared for the seriousness of the undertaking, maintain your ethical obligations, and volunteer your time to something you feel passionately about, pro bono work may just be the thing that makes you fall in love with the law all over again. 


Pro bono lawyers are an incredibly valuable part of our profession.

Pro bono legal work offers a unique opportunity for lawyers to contribute positively to society while gaining valuable experience and personal fulfillment.

However, it is essential to approach pro bono cases with the same level of professionalism and dedication as paid work. Pro bono clients deserve ethical and competent representation, and lawyers must be mindful of potential malpractice risks.

Aligning pro bono efforts with personal passions can enhance the experience and drive a higher quality of service. Working with established organizations can provide structure, support, and resources that benefit both the lawyer and the client.

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