The Latin term "pro bono" literally translates to "for the good". Although state and bar associations have varying criteria for what constitutes pro bono work, it is generally understood to refer to legal services performed free of charge for the public good, often on behalf of individuals or organizations of limited means.
Pro bono work can enrich a lawyer's practice and prove beneficial for law firms. All lawyers, especially those newer to the profession, can gain knowledge and experience by handling pro bono matters that involve substantive legal work. The satisfaction of contributing to the public good and improving the lives of clients has its own humanitarian rewards that are impossible to quantify. Law firms encourage pro bono work in order to:
Train their associates
Recruit law students and other lawyers.
Enhance their own public reputations by giving back to their communities.
While pro bono work can be a positive experience for lawyers and law firms, it remains the practice of law and thus has inherent risk. Problems often occur when lawyers and law firms take an inattentive approach to pro bono matters, failing to dedicate the attention and care that would be given to a paying client.
Verify Ability to Handle the Pro Bono Representation
Lawyers have a duty to turn down any potential representations that they are not competent to perform or otherwise handle. This precept does not preclude a lawyer from taking on a pro bono matter involving an area of practice in which the attorney has never practiced. Competence may be gained by associating with another attorney who has experience in the relevant area of practice, receiving specialized training, and/or performing the necessary legal research and study. Attorneys who are contemplating accepting a pro bono representation, especially those who lack experience in the subject matter at issue, should examine whether they are committed to spending the time necessary to learn the relevant law unrelated to their customary area of practice. In addition, lawyers must evaluate whether their existing workload for other clients allows sufficient time to adequately prepare for and manage a pro bono representation.
Ensure Proper Supervision
Law firms seeking to reap the benefits of pro bono work must cultivate their own assets. In a law firm setting, supervisory lawyers should be assigned to every pro bono matter, and there should be direct communication between the supervisory and subordinate lawyers on timelines and resources for each matter. When feasible, law firms should match supervisory assignments to the relevant experience of the supervisors. It does little good for a subordinate transactional lawyer working on a pro bono litigation matter to be paired with a supervisory transactional lawyer who has no litigation experience.
As important as communication, experience, and supervision are to handling pro bono matters, the law firm must develop a culture where pro bono cases receive the same level of attention as other client business. Some partners in supervisory roles do not scrutinize their pro bono matters in the same fashion as their billable matters because they feel that there is no economic incentive to do so. Law firm management must convey to those partners that the law firm values pro bono legal work even though such matters do not generate much if any income for the law firm. Apart from the intrinsic value of pro bono work, there are practical reasons for treating these cases seriously as well. If a pro bono case goes badly due to neglect by the lawyer or law firm, a civil jury or disciplinary authority will care little that the lawyer was not paid for the legal services provided. Instead, they will be primarily concerned with the mismanagement of the case by the lawyer or law firm.
Monitor the Matter
Key dates and deadlines of all pro bono matters should be entered into a centralized calendar system. The individual attorneys responsible for such matters should maintain their own calendars as well. Some law firms organize their matters through their billing procedures. Consequently, pro bono representations may be neglected, since such clients do not pay for their legal services. If a lawyer or law firm commits to accepting a pro bono representation, they must implement and adhere to a monitoring system that ensures fulfillment of deadlines and project completion. Part of any comprehensive monitoring system includes an exit procedure for attorneys departing the law firm. Law firms should institute exit interviews for all departing attorneys in order to track any outstanding active matters, arrange for the transfer of files, and assign other law firm personnel to such matters.
Pro bono work can contribute to the public good and constitute some of the most rewarding work an attorney can perform over the course of a legal career. The absence of payment from a client, however, does not diminish the standard of care for attorneys who handle pro bono matters. Lawyers and law firms that agree to represent pro bono clients should establish that they either possess or will acquire the knowledge to handle a particular matter. Law firms also must ensure that their subordinate lawyers that perform pro bono work have adequate time and resources to competently complete their work. Careful monitoring of pro bono matters safeguards clients' rights from being prejudiced and lawyers from facing legal malpractice lawsuits or disciplinary actions. By treating their pro bono cases with the same dedication and professionalism as their other matters, lawyers can provide legal services to the indigent while protecting themselves from legal malpractice and other claims.
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