The Definition of Pro Bono in Law

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Pro bono publico is a Latin phrase that's typically shortened to "pro bono." It means “for the good of the people.” In the legal profession, the term refers to legal services performed free of charge or at reduced fees for the public good. Unlike traditional volunteerism, pro bono services leverage the skills of legal professionals to help those who are unable to afford lawyers.

What Does Pro Bono Mean?

Pro bono services help marginalized communities and underserved populations that are often denied access to justice, such as children and the elderly, due to lack of income.

A lawyer may also privately accept a case “pro bono,” meaning that he won't charge the client or he will accept a significantly lower fee for his services. He might devote time and effort to improving or amending the law or the legal system, such as through lobbying. He can contribute financial resources to organizations that provide free or reduced-fee legal services to clients of limited means. 

What Are the Pro Bono Requirements for Lawyers?

The need for legal services among the poor is overwhelming. According to an American Bar Association study, at least 40% of low and moderate-income households experience a legal problem each year. Yet studies show that the collective civil legal aid effort meets only about 20% of the legal needs of these low-income people. 

Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. Under ABA Model Rule 6.1, a lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year.

The ABA offers dues waivers to certain senior and inactive members of the bar who volunteer 500 or more hours of their time. Some law firms and local bar associations may recommend fewer or more hours of pro bono service. Many law firms and paralegal associations recommend that paralegals also perform a certain number of pro bono hours per year.

Pro Bono Opportunities 

All state and local bar associations have pro bono committees where attorneys can volunteer their time. You might also provide help through legal aid services structured to offer free representation or representation on sliding fee scales for those who cannot afford help otherwise. Legal aid services can vary as to the areas of law they address, so you may not find your niche with this type of program.

If you specialize in family law, you may be limited to only handling cases where domestic violence is an issue, not general divorces. Depending on your area of expertise, you might want to reach out to the American Bar Association's Volunteer Legal Project, which offers help across more diverse specialties such as bankruptcy, estate planning, guardianship, custody, and adoptions. 

The Military Pro Bono Project helps active duty service members. ABA International Activities and Programs and the International Legal Resource Center provide international opportunities if you would like to render assistance to the underprivileged in other countries.  

Review the American Bar Association’s National Pro Bono Opportunities Guide or visit probono.net for guidance to pro bono opportunities available in your area.