How Does Pro Bono Work?

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Equal access to representation is a hallmark of the American legal system. One way of promoting that ideal is pro bono work, or legal services provided without expectation of payment. This ideal helps attorneys assist low-income, vulnerable populations whose rights would otherwise be less protected. The Legal Services Corporation remains the largest provider of these services, though state bar associations and public interest groups offer the most common way of finding them locally.

Basic Definitions

Attorneys who provide services without expecting payment are doing pro bono work. According to the Pro Bono Lawyers website, the term is a shortening of the Latin phrase "pro bono publico," which means, "for the public good." The American Bar Association expects members to dedicate 50 hours a year to such work. Model Rule 6.1. of the association's ethics code specifies that pro bono assistance be made available to "persons of limited means," or charitable, civic, educational and religious organizations that help those populations.

Essetial Services

State bar associations are one of the most common resources to find pro bono attorneys. Services are typically free with proof of financial hardship due to chronic illness, domestic abuse, military service or social injustice. Attorneys often focus on specific areas. When severe flooding hit Tennessee in May 2010, more than 200 pro bono attorneys helped victims negotiate landlord-tenant issues and insurance claims, according to the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, or TALS. The alliance began working a full week before the first federal disaster response letters appeared.

Pro Bono Clients

Pro bono work often becomes a vehicle for social advocacy. One of the best-known examples involves inmates facing indefinite confinement for terrorism offenses at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay prison. For six years, the Center for Constitutional Rights has mobilized more than 500 pro bono attorneys nationwide to assert the inmates' rights to appeal their cases, according to its homepage. The attorneys are also pressing various other issues, such as resolving the fate of 50 Guantanamo inmates who cannot safely return to their home countries.

Long-Term Outlook

As America's vulnerable population grows, so does the challenge of finding enough pro bono attorneys to serve them. Following a $15.8 million budget cut, the Legal Services Corporation laid off attorneys, imposed staff furloughs and cut hours for programs nationwide, "The Boise Weekly" reported in May 2011. The agency is the largest provider of free civil legal services to the poor. With less help available at the federal level, private law firms and public interest groups may find themselves taking more of the caseload.

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