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Pro bono literally means “for the public good.” The idea of pro bono services is to provide all people legal assistance, despite their financial situations. For attorneys, it provides a way for them to use their professional talents in a way that helps under-served populations in their community and narrows the access to justice gap.
Pro bono work can be incredibly rewarding, but it’s not typically financially profitable. Not every attorney can afford to donate the time and resources necessary to fulfill pro bono obligations. However, there is a way to take pro bono cases without losing money.
Lawyers work in a very demanding profession, and it can be a challenge to find the time and energy to spare that would be necessary to take on a pro bono case. No matter what the nature of a claim may be, an attorney must always consider the client’s best interests. This means watching out for potential conflicts of interest in the client-attorney relationship and allocating the time and resources necessary to do a competent job.
Here are some pro bono tips to help guide your work to make sure you take on a case that fits your skill set and ensures your firm’s bottom line isn’t impacted:
Usually, pro bono attorneys do not get paid. But there is the possibility that a pro bono attorney may receive some amount of compensation — or at least not lose money for taking the case.
Lawyers who take pro bono cases may also receive waivers of court costs and other filing fees. In some cases, an attorney may structure a retainer agreement that allows for the recovery of attorney fees if the case leads to a positive outcome. With a contingency fee agreement, an attorney may get paid only if they win a case or obtain a settlement, in which case the attorney will receive a pre-agreed percentage. This does not always require a jury award. Attorneys may also receive fees as part of a court order or when negotiated in a settlement.
There are benefits for lawyers who take on pro bono cases. For starters, there’s a sense of fulfillment that comes with donating time and helping those in need of assistance. But there are other factors that an attorney can look forward to when taking a pro bono case.
One clear benefit to taking on a pro bono case is the tax deduction firms receive on expenses associated with the claim. However, this does not include the cost of time spent on the case. Another benefit to taking on these cases is the networking. Pro bono cases can require court appearances, which provide opportunities to get in front of judges and start building rapport with them. Pro bono work can also help build your profile, improve your firm’s reputation, and expand your network. After all, lawyers who volunteer their time and abilities gain the public’s trust, and pro bono work reflects positively on you personally and professionally. Building a great reputation can lead to increased billable clients and more referrals from other firms in the long run.
Finally, pro bono work may help you break into a new practice area. Attorneys are allowed to take pro bono cases in areas of law outside their expertise. However, it is every attorney’s responsibility to seek out the necessary resources to properly represent their clients — no matter what area of law they may need help with.
There are multiple resources for lawyers looking for pro bono cases and for pro bono tips. American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rule 6.1 establishes the professional responsibility standards for attorneys with respect to pro bono service. Every legal professional should aspire to provide 50 hours of legal services to those unable to pay. For example, the ABA maintains a Pro Bono Resource Directory, which helps connect attorneys with pro bono organizations near them, and Probono.net is a resource that connects lawyers and clients together. The Legal Services Corporation also provides financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans.
Pro bono cases are a great way to help your community while also improving the status of your reputation in the field.
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