Pro Bono – For the People by Stephanie Javarauckas
July 14th, 2017
When one becomes an attorney, they take on a heavy burden: protect the interests of the people. Unlike some terms, Black’s Law Dictionary does not denote any populations to be excluded from the term “people,” nor should any attorney go out of the way to exclude an individual from receiving representation. Thus, those who cannot afford legal services should not be ignored; attorneys have the responsibility of protecting their interests as well.
Pro bono comes from the Latin term “pro bono publico,” which translates to “for the public good.” (Currier 2016). A study conducted in 2008 showed that there was a disagreement among those surveyed about how to define pro bono: one group believed that pro bono was “direct legal representation provided to persons of limited means or organizations that support the needs of persons of limited means for which no compensation was received or expected.” The other group defined pro bono as “law-related services provided for a reduced fee or no cost (without expectation of fee) to any type of client, no including activities performed to develop a paying client or anything that is part of paying job responsibilities.” (McDevitt 2013). The first definition, which emphasizes on providing legal services to those of limited means with no compensation is received or expected, should be considered the true definition of pro bono legal work. Free legal services should be offered to those who need it, and no payment or fees should be expected after the work has been completed.
Of the free legal services offered in 2016 that responded to TrustLaw’s survey regarding pro bono work, 64,500 lawyers in 75 countries preformed over 2.5 million hours of completely cost-free work for their clients. The firms offered their assistance to charities, public interest litigation, and individuals in need. 28% of the individual cases were family law related, 21% were in regards to contract, 15% was criminal law, 12% was labor and employment, and 4% handled youth law. (Villa 2017).
When facing a criminal conviction, one should be able to obtain legal representation, no matter what their financial situation is. Even if guilty of a crime, the sentence must be just and fair. The Innocence Project is the pinnacle of free legal representation that should serve as a motivating factor to all attorneys, criminal pro bono or not. Since their inception, the Innocence Project has exonerated 350 wrongfully incarcerated individuals in the United States by DNA testing, including 20 who served time on death row. (Innocenceproject.org). Without their free legal representation, these 350 individuals would still be in prison, and 20 would most likely have been executed for a crime they did not commit. While there is no statistic on the quality of legal service at the time of their initial conviction, or if they even had representation at all, these individuals had their lives saved by free legal services. It could be argued that a high quality of free legal representation could have prevented a wrongful conviction in the first place. Especially when initially accused of a crime, one’s assets become consumed in other ways: bail, potential unemployment, or debt repayment if the individual is likely to be incarcerated. Free legal representation would alleviate this stress, especially if the individual is wrongfully convicted.
The community benefits immensely from free legal services. Underserved communities in particular will reap the most remunerations from pro bono work. Often, firms use their extra hours specifically on community pro bono work as their group “has the desire to support the community that might need help, not just one individual who asks.” (Gaffney 2017). TrustLaw’s survey did show that public interest litigation and charities were among those that received free legal representation. Organization that is funded by pro bono legal work is the Catholic Charities, which attorneys come together to provide community representation. Some of the services offered to the communities with Catholic Charities are Asylum cases, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status cases, Violence Against Women Act cases, and even T Visa cases for victims of human trafficking. (Villa 2017). Community organizations that offer free legal services provides a safe, and cost-free, way for individuals to seek justice for crimes against themselves. In general, organizations that provide free legal services through attorneys that volunteer make communities a safer place by allowing individuals to seek an attorney with ease – all they would need to do is show up and plead their case.
If benefits of pro bono work at the individual and community level are not enough to sway an attorney into taking a case, that individual should not be practicing law. Again, the overall goal of becoming a lawyer is to protect the interests of all people. While more convincing should not be necessary, it is a fact that pro bono work is beneficial to the legal system as a whole. Pro bono work puts the soul back in the legal profession while improving client interaction and providing attorneys with unique experience. Pro bono work creates an intimate relationship with clients, as cases tend to be personal. Interactions with pro bono clients tend to require “active listening that begs effective face-to-face interpersonal communication.” (Murray 2009). This communication empowers the client, which can in turn, empower the attorney. Free legal services also provides numerous opportunities for the young attorney. Young litigators are often offered the lead in pro bono trials, such as in Muller v. Oregon, where Louis Brandeis was able to argue for his client in front of the Supreme Court. A unanimous decision by the highest court set this young attorney up for dozens of future successes, all because of offering free legal services to one client. Id. While Brandeis might be the role model for young associates to jump at offering free services, he can also motivate seasoned lawyers – any case can win notoriety, and if the one that makes a career is pro bono, one’s reputation is likely to become gilded.
All attorneys should live by the words of David Kutik: “We make the law and the justice system work for people who have nothing to give us but their gratitude. We empower them. We give them hope; we help them when they have nowhere else to turn. It makes us feel that our training, our experience, and our judgment can do some good. It makes us feel that we are better people. And we are.” (Kutik 2005). Pro bono work connects lawyers to the individuals who would not typically solicit legal advice due to financial difficulties. In return, not only will the client receive representation that they deserve – the attorney will be awarded with the personal gratitude that they are participating in furthering the greater good.
About the Author
Stephanie Javarauckas of Suffield, Connecticut, is the First Place Winner of the Simmons and Fletcher, P.C. Excellence in Ethics Annual Scholarship. She will be attending the University of Connecticut School of Law in 2017.
Currier, B. A. (2016, June). Pro Bono Publico.
Gaffney, N. (2017, January 13). Pro Bono Carries Benefits Beyond Any One Case.
Kutik, D. A. (2005, Oct. & nov.). Pro Bono: Why Bother?
McDevitt, L. (2013, March). SUPPORTING JUSTICE III: A REPORT ON THE PRO BONO WORK OF AMERICA’S LAWYERS.
Murray, B. J. (2009). The Importance of Pro Bono Work in Professional Development. The Journal of the Trial Practice Committee, 23(3), 1-17.
Villa, M. (2017, January). TRUSTLAW INDEX OF PRO BONO 2016.
Paul Cannon has practiced personal injury trial law since 1995. He is Board Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law (2005). He has earned recognition as a Super Lawyer by Thompson Reuters in 2017 & 2018, and as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers Association in 2017. He is a Shareholder, trial lawyer and online marketing manager at Simmons and Fletcher, P.C. His legal writings have been published by the Texas Bar Journal, Business.com, Lawyer.com HG Legal Resources, Lawfirms.com, and others. He has been asked to give education talks and media interviews on dog bite law.