Pro bono attorneys are attorneys who work for clients without compensation, contributing their skills to people who might not be able to afford an attorney otherwise. Working pro bono is commonly encouraged by bar associations, and many attorneys volunteer to perform pro bono work each year. While this type of work is not strictly required, lawyers who fail to contribute at least some time to pro bono work each year may be censured by their colleagues. Some choose to work in pro bono departments within a law firm or for pro bono organizations, turning volunteer work into a full-time pursuit.
The term “pro bono” is a shortening of the Latin “pro bono publico,” which means “for the public good.” The concept of working pro bono exists in some other professions as well, with this type of volunteer work being unique because it involves the donation of professional skills to a person in need. Pro bono attorneys work with their non-paying clients on a variety of cases such as appeals, contracts, and landlord-tenant disputes. Clients can find pro bono attorneys through directories of attorneys who do pro bono work, or through referrals by organizations which help low-income individuals.
In addition to low-income individuals, pro bono attorneys may also work with charitable organizations, donating their services so that the charity does not have to pay a lawyer. Some lawyers prefer to seek out specific types of cases for their pro bono work, while others are willing to take part in any legal challenge they are presented with. In firms which believe that public service is an important part of the legal profession, other legal staff such as paralegals may also be encouraged to get involved in pro bono work.
This type of legal representation is usually not available to people or organizations who can easily afford a lawyer, with attorneys focusing on offering pro bono representation in a way which will benefit the common good. Providing free services to someone who does not need free services would be a waste of volunteer work, while targeting disadvantaged and low-income individuals can have a more lasting benefit.
While pro bono attorneys are not compensated for their work up front, sometimes they do make money from the cases they work on. For example, in a case which results in a large cash settlement, it is traditional to pay a share to the attorney, even if the attorney has not specifically requested payment. In other instances, if a pro bono attorney manages to win a suit, the losing side may be obligated to pay legal fees to the winning side, in which case the attorney would receive some payment for his or her work.