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Pro Bono Work Isn't Just for Lawyers

published March 12, 2007

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<<Specifically, the conference will guide paralegals through the process of building and expanding pro bono programs, specifically focusing on recruiting volunteers, keeping them interested and active, documenting volunteer projects, and recognizing volunteers through a reward system.

Organized pro bono programs made up of attorneys have existed in the United States for more than a century. The American Bar Association's Model Rule 6.1, in fact, states that lawyers should "aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono public legal services per year."

Trying to keep up with the demand for pro bono services, in 1999, the ABA established a standing committee to promote the utilization of paralegal and legal-assistant professionals in the delivery of pro bono legal services; such professionals are subject to the same laws, rules, and ethical considerations that they would be in all other types of employment situations.

The NFPA recommends that paralegals aspire to perform at least 24 hours of pro bono service annually, defined as "providing or assisting in providing quality legal services in order to enhance access to justice for persons of limited means; charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental, and educational organizations in matters that are designed primarily to address the legal needs of persons with limited means; or individuals, groups, or organizations seeking to secure or protect rights, civil liberties, or public rights."

As the needs of our communities are many, it's clear that providing pro bono service is not just for lawyers. Just as every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay, legal-assistant and paralegal professionals are likewise encouraged to devote time to assist the disadvantaged or underrepresented. With passion for the law, compassion for others, and diverse skills and knowledge of a broad range of practice areas, legal assistants and paralegals are uniquely positioned to help those in need by performing pro bono work.

Whether one is helping to support a specific cause or religious or civic organization or attempting to improve knowledge and expand professional skills into new practice areas, the purpose of pro bono services—giving those who would otherwise lack opportunities access to the justice system—remains invaluable.

"When the poor have representation, it makes all of the difference [...] presenting a package that looks professional, that says 'someone looked at this and someone believed in me,' [is] something we [as legal advocates] can take for granted, [but it] can be the difference between a person getting what they are entitled to or not—the difference between justice and injustice," said Sharon Cohn, a Harvard Law graduate and Senior Vice President of Interventions for the International Justice Mission, a nonprofit organization known for taking on casework for those who have no ability to advocate on their own behalf.

What's Keeping You from Volunteering?

Have you thought about talking to your boss or firm about setting aside more time for pro bono work? Why not use your excellent and highly regarded research skills to find and contact local bar associations or legal-assistant associations in order to determine the needs of your local community?

If you find a preexisting pro bono program, you're all set. If not, various guidelines exist with regard to starting one on your own. Present a plan to your superiors and emphasize that you want to volunteer but need more flexibility in order to do so. Here are several suggestions:

  • Ask if billable hours can count as pro bono hours. Refer to the "Pro Bono Institute Challenge"    (, a contract in which a law firm commits 3% to 5% of its billable hours (60 or 100 hours per lawyer) to providing free legal services to the disenfranchised.
  • If you can show your superiors that other firms across the country have participated in such challenges, this may inspire them to get involved, too. Appeal to your firm's or boss's sense of wanting to keep up with other leading firms.
  • Research top firms or solo practitioners in your community who are already committed to pro bono work. Talk to them and find out what works instead of reinventing the wheel.
  • Use your persuasive skills to put together a compelling argument on why pro bono work is necessary. Mention work/life balance and suggest that increased productivity in the office will result from implementing this essential component.
  • Use visual aids. Pictures, graphs, tables, and statistics could be the keys to getting your point across.
  • Stay passionate! Find an issue that you are passionate about and research ways to get involved in a legal capacity. If you're passionate, your enthusiasm will likely rub off on your superiors. They will begin to get excited as well or at least support you in your endeavors.
  • Go to the Pro Bono Conference! It's not too late to sign up. Visit the National Federation of Paralegal Associations' website,, for more information.

Pro bono opportunities are numerous. For example, local bar associations and pro bono programs need legal assistants to deal with tasks such as screening and intake. Also, assistants can gain experience by working with attorneys on staff.

If opportunities are ample, why aren't more legal assistants and lawyers getting involved in pro bono work? In a pro bono policy and procedures recommendation, the American Bar Association suggests that "the pace and pressures of modern legal practice are making it harder and harder for lawyers to continue to perform these vital roles in their communities." Is this the case for you?