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Pro bono

Celebrate Pro Bono: Ensuring access to justice for all

· 5 minute read

· 5 minute read

October 22nd - 28th is the 2023 National Celebration of Pro Bono.

You may not know how to read Latin, but chances are very good that you know the phrase, pro bono publico. Meaning “for the public good,” pro bono publico (or just pro bono) refers to professional services provided at no or very low cost. Some sources say it was first introduced in the English language in the 1600s, but its concept remains ever-current in 21st-century legal practices.   

Jump to:

  The privilege and the promise of pro bono publico

  Beyond dollars and cents

  Adding passion to your profession

  Make pro bono publico a routine


The privilege and the promise of pro bono publico 

The best reason to do pro bono publico work is simply because you have the ability to help people who need it. According to the American Bar Association, “When society confers the privilege to practice law on an individual, he or she accepts the responsibility to promote justice and to make justice equally accessible to all people. Thus, all lawyers should aspire to render some legal services without fee or expectation of fee for the good of the public.”  

Access to justice is foundational to our legal system. In criminal cases, defendants have a right to legal counsel if they can’t afford it. But in civil matters, that right doesn’t exist, even if the case involves life-altering issues like immigration, domestic violence, or elder law. The inability to pay shouldn’t preclude someone from getting professional legal representation. 


Beyond dollars and cents 

Even though you don’t get paid for pro bono work, it’s not without its benefits. You and your firm both gain, not in terms of the bottom line, but in other growth areas such as: 

Stretching your skills

The opportunity to work outside your field of expertise can enhance your skill set. 

Building your team

A pro bono case may pair you with attorneys with whom you may not have regular contact. 

Boosting your reputation

Pro bono work can increase your (or your firm’s) public profile. 

Attracting key talent

Many new lawyers consider a firm’s pro bono opportunities when deciding where to work. 


Adding passion to your profession 

In addition to these professional pluses, many lawyers find intrinsic value in providing pro bono publico services, particularly when their passion drives their volunteer work. What motivated you to become a lawyer? Was it a personal, family, or civil issue that sparked the legal drive inside you? Did you see injustice and want to help? Personal passion for a cause can help you maintain your commitment, especially when the work is difficult or time-consuming.  


Passion is a powerful motivator. Even if you feel you give 100% to every client, being passionate about a pro bono cause can fuel your desire to win a favorable judgment. Those long hours, especially non-billable hours, can be less taxing when your heart is in your work. 


Passion can enhance your ability to empathize with your pro bono client. Empathy can come in at either a cognitive level, where you think from your client’s perspective, or an emotional level, where you begin to feel, or at least imagine what your client is feeling. Passion in this sense can fuel creativity in your strategy. 


Passionate lawyers are often more persuasive. If you believe strongly in the justice of your client’s case, your advocacy will be important in court or in negotiations with other parties. 


Clients who sense the passion of their attorney regarding their cases are more likely to trust them. Establishing a trust relationship means your clients are more likely to feel valued and supported knowing you care about their case and the cause. 

Inspiring others

Passion is contagious. When colleagues feel your passion for a case, they may be inspired to join you in the cause. Your passion can become their passion. 

English author EM Forster once wrote, “One person with passion is better than 40 people merely interested.”  With so many demands on your time, feeling passionate about the work you do can translate into better legal representation for your clients. 


Make pro bono publico a routine 

If your previous pro bono work hasn’t been inspired by your passions, give it another try. “Once someone starts helping a client, they start caring,” says Sara Ghadiri, Pro Bono Counsel at Chapman and Cutler. “At their core, most attorneys chose this career path because they like helping.”   

The American Bar Association doesn’t require pro bono work but strongly encourages it. Many firms do require it, and even give credit toward an attorney’s billable hours obligation. 

Pro bono work presents a unique opportunity to expand as a professional. While paying clients might be unhappy with the costs of extra research or trying out creative approaches to case strategy, pro bono clients will be grateful for the time you spent on their cases.  

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