The American Bar Association has defined “pro bono” as legal services provided without fee or expectation of fee to persons of limited means or non-profit, governmental, civic, community, or religious organizations in matters designed primarily to address the needs of persons with limited means. Understanding the many ways that public interest work can benefit you and your professional life significantly increases the likelihood that you will have a long and fulfilling legal career. Many attorneys have said that the pro bono work they do is the most rewarding aspect of their professional lives.
Pro bono work can be done all law students and attorneys. Advocate Resource Center lists pro bono opportunities in Washington State for law students and attorneys in the practice areas in which you are most interested. For pro bono opportunities outside of Washington, explore probono.net, which also may be searched using practice area queries. The ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service offers resources to learn more about assessing a pro bono program, locating pro bono opportunities, and ABA pro bono projects. Other opportunities can also be had through student organizations that you are involved with, participating in ATJI activities, WSBA work groups and through networking.
If you are interested in working in the private sector and want a robust pro bono practice, you may be wondering how to evaluate a firm’s commitment to pro bono service. Some firms have structured pro bono involvement plans, others prefer that their attorneys work on issues they are passionate about as individuals, and still others have a hybrid of these models. The firm’s commitment to pro bono speaks volumes about its view of the legal profession and the firm’s culture and values, so it is important to gather as much information as possible. Research, informational interviews, and job experiences can help you get beyond the firm’s pro bono promotional materials and learn about the firm’s real commitment.
To learn about the firm’s pro bono program, a good place to begin your research is on the firm’s website. Firms often discuss the firm’s commitment to pro bono and list significant pro bono matters they have worked on. For more information, look at the employer’s NALP form, which lists information such as the percentage of associates and partners that participate in the firm’s pro bono program and whether pro bono hours count toward billable minimums. The most accurate and in-depth information that you will get, however, will be from talking to members of the firm or others in the community familiar with the firm’s practices. They will be able to tell you how the firm selects pro bono cases on which attorneys will work, whether there is adequate administrative support for pro bono activities, and whether partners supervise pro bono work.
Some questions you might want to ask about regarding a firm’s pro bono commitment include:
- Does the firm have a structured pro bono program? Does it have a pro bono committee?
- How does the firm define pro bono work?
- In addition to a pro bono policy, does the firm have other programs encouraging public service – e.g., summer rotation or non-legal public service work?
- What resources does the firm make available to attorneys who perform pro bono work? (Is support staff available to work on pro bono cases, is training available?)
- Do pro bono hours count toward billable minimums?
The ABA encourages attorneys to render at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year, and contribute financially to organizations that provide legal services to indigent persons. The Washington State Bar Association encourages a minimum of 30 hours per year, and recognizes attorneys that render over 50 hours per year. For more information about pro bono service in Washington, see RPC 6.1.