Offering pro bono legal help is not reserved for attorneys alone; professionals in a range of legal careers can offer their services on a volunteer basis. Pro bono work can allow paralegals, legal assistants and law students the chance to broaden their skills, take on passion projects and gain valuable professional experience while giving back to their communities. These tips can help them get involved in pro bono work.
What Is Pro Bono Work?
“Pro bono” is short for the Latin phrase “pro bono publico,” which translates to “for the public good.” For legal professionals, this volunteer work can include providing legal advice, reviewing or drafting documents, interviewing clients, speaking about or offering training on legal issues, being a member of a pro bono organization or joining a bar committee related to pro bono work or access to justice.
“Direct legal representation provided to persons of limited means or organizations that support the needs or persons of limited means for which no compensation was received or expected.”
“Any other law-related service provided for a reduced fee or no cost (without expectation of fee) to any type of client, not including activities performed to develop a paying client or anything that is part of paying job responsibilities.”
Who Does Pro Bono Legal Work?
Attorneys are not the only legal professionals who can engage in pro bono work. David Bienvenu, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, said the committee views the pro bono work of paralegals as critical to expanding access to justice.
“Paralegals’ ability to complete intakes, request and collect supporting documentation, research legal issues and, in some cases (such as agency hearings), provide services contributes to expanding access to justice for those who cannot afford lawyers, as well as creating capacity within legal aid organizations and for pro bono attorneys to take on the work that paralegals are unable to perform,” he said.
Here’s how a range of legal professionals can engage in pro bono work:
The American Bar Association encourages attorneys to engage in 50 hours of pro bono work annually. Attorneys can take on entire cases or portions of legal cases at no cost to pro bono clients.
While they cannot directly represent clients in pro bono cases, judges can help support pro bono work in their jurisdictions. Judges can work with local bar associations, create legal assistance programs, train pro bono attorneys and engage in other activities to promote pro bono legal services.
Law and legal students.
Pro bono work can provide relevant work experience for students pursuing law and legal studies degrees. Students hoping to become a lawyer or become a paralegal can use pro bono service to build their resumes and gain employment. Some law schools require students to participate in volunteer work to graduate, and many support pro bono programs.
The Need for Pro Bono Legal Professionals
Although court-appointed attorneys are guaranteed for people in criminal cases, the same is not true for civil cases, so there is a need for legal professionals to volunteer in civil issues—from family law and domestic disputes to financial and foreclosure cases.
Christine Flynn, a Philadelphia paralegal and pro bono coordinator for the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, said she has seen an increased need for legal professionals to volunteer across the board since the recession.
Often, paralegals and other legal professionals help patch gaps in legal needs for individuals. Common places for legal professionals to volunteer include rural areas with few legal professionals; senior citizen legal clinics; limited license legal technician (LLLT) programs; and court-appointed special advocates (CASA) programs, in which paralegals act as representatives for minors at hearings.
“We’re trying to face the unmet legal needs of the community,” Flynn said.
How to Find Pro Bono Opportunities
Paralegals should also ask their employers/prospective employers if they offer or support pro bono work.
“Don’t be afraid to ask when you go on your job interview if that firm is involved in pro bono and community service projects,” Flynn said.
Many law firms have pro bono policies in place, and interviewees can ask whether it provides for paralegal engagement, Bienvenu said.
“If there is no policy in place, paralegals may want to inquire whether the employer encourages pro bono participation by paralegal staff, whether work time may be used to engage in pro bono and whether there are prospects to team up with attorneys and other employees on pro bono opportunities,” Bienvenu said.
Beyond working through their employers, paralegals and legal professionals can turn to local legal associations, legal aid offices and walk-in clinics for pro bono opportunities.
“You can look in your own backyard,” Flynn said.
Organizations offering pro bono opportunities for legal professionals
These are just some of the organizations where legal professionals can seek pro bono work:
Legal professionals looking for pro bono work can also seek out local and regional paralegal associations and state bar associations.
Benefits and Challenges of Pro Bono Work
The benefits of engaging in pro bono work are similar to those for anyone doing volunteer opportunities, such as improved health and mental well-being. But it doesn’t come without obstacles.
Improving existing skills and acquiring new ones.
Legal professionals can practice communicating with clients, hone their research abilities and refine their skills at hearings.
Gaining experience in areas outside a person’s expertise.
Pro bono work can be a great way for legal professionals to pursue passion projects or learn more about areas of law with which they are unfamiliar.
Pro bono work offers opportunities for legal professionals to meet others in the field.
Paralegals, legal assistants and students must be careful to not engage in the unauthorized practice of law and ensure they are operating under the supervision of an attorney.
If employers resist accommodating pro bono work during working hours, legal professionals should seek flexible pro bono work (such as research) or other opportunities outside working hours.
Doing pro bono work, especially during working hours, comes at the expense of billable work. Many law firm employees have to meet minimum billable hour requirements.
How to Balance Pro Bono and Paid Work
Legal professionals can follow these general tips for balancing their paid work with volunteer activities.
Ask prospective employers. During job interviews, ask prospective employers whether they engage in pro bono work and whether comp time or other benefits are offered for pro bono work.
Gather support for new projects. If your employer does not have its own pro bono initiatives, ask about getting support to launch them.
Make time. Paralegals can use their lunch hours or small blocks of time before or after work to assist in volunteer work if they aren’t able to do it during business hours.
Seek training. Take time to train and ask questions if you are volunteering in an area outside your expertise to make the transition more seamless.
Avoid burnout. Although providing pro bono services can help legal professionals find meaning in their work, they should take breaks from work and care for their physical and mental health to avoid burning out.
How to Find Pro Bono Legal Help
People who can’t afford legal counsel are eligible for pro bono representation, and anyone can utilize free legal clinics and resources.
Many nonprofit organizations rely on pro bono work to support vulnerable populations, such as older adults, children, veterans and immigrants.
Tips for Finding Pro Bono Legal Representation
People who need pro bono representation or legal help should be sure to go through the proper channels. For example, paralegals are not allowed to practice law but can offer services under the supervision of an attorney, so those seeking representation should make sure they go through the correct avenues.
These organizations can help people find free legal help for a range of issues: