- How do I find pro bono opportunities?
The Los Angeles County Bar Association (LACBA) provides a number of pro bono opportunities through its legal services projects which include the Domestic Violence Legal Services Project, Veterans Legal Services Project, Immigration Legal Assistance Project and AIDS Legal Services Project.
LACBA’s Website also provides information on other pro bono opportunities in Los Angeles, including a searchable online directory of statewide legal services programs, lists of Los Angeles legal services programs and IOLTA grant recipients that provide free civil legal services to low-income Californians, federal court and appellate opportunities, and other pro bono resources. (https://www.lacba.org/give-back/volunteer/other-pro-bono-opportunities)
- Who can do pro bono?
All California lawyers in good standing with the State Bar can do pro bono. Your help is needed. You have legal training and a license to practice law. Studies have repeatedly shown that attorneys get better results than litigants who represent themselves. Most legal services organizations provide training and support to their pro bono attorneys, including areas outside of your normal practice. You can make a real difference in people’s lives, even if you don’t feel like an expert or the pro bono services are outside of your normal practice area.
There also are many opportunities for law students. Law students develop the ability to problem-solve, strategize, conduct factual investigations and legal research, and advocate. Law students have a unique set of skills and knowledge that can be used to expand access to justice.
Retired or inactive attorneys can take advantage of the State Bar’s Pro Bono Practice Program to assist low-income Californians on a pro bono basis even without an active State Bar Membership.
- What qualifies as pro bono legal services?
Legal work for one of LACBA’s Projects or legal work on matters that have been screened and referred by a legal services organization will qualify as pro bono. LACBA’s Pro Bono Policy also includes a detailed definition of what counts. Generally, legal services provided without expectation of a fee to indigent individuals qualifies. Providing free legal assistance to friends and relatives who are not indigent, however, is not pro bono. If a paying client becomes unable to pay, that “bad debt” does not count as pro bono because the attorney expected compensation at the outset of the representation. Non-legal volunteer work also generally does not qualify as pro bono.
- Is pro bono mandatory for lawyers?
Although not considered mandatory in California, it is well accepted that every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay, and should provide a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services each year. The 50 hour goal is aspirational and not a requirement. LACBA also encourages lawyers, law firms, and corporate law departments to contribute financial support to LACBA Counsel for Justice and other organizations that provide legal services free of charge to persons of limited means.
- If I am unable to do pro bono work, can I make a financial contribution?
Absolutely! All attorneys are encouraged to contribute pro bono time and/or financial support. Please consider making a contribution directly to LACBA Counsel for Justice, which helped more than 18,000 people last year.
- What about malpractice insurance?
If you are practicing law and have active malpractice insurance it may provide coverage for pro bono work. In addition, most legal services organizations provide coverage for pro bono work. LACBA’s malpractice insurance does cover attorneys who volunteer with its pro bono legal services projects and can provide you with a letter of confirmation if you need it. You should also check with your carrier or the legal services organization for more specific information about coverage.
- Does pro bono always mean taking on an entire case?
No. There is a broad range of pro bono activities that do not require direct, full representation or court appearances, such as brief service by phone or in person, document preparation and review, and legal research. Many programs, like LACBA’s Veterans, Domestic Violence, Small Claims and Immigration Legal Services Projects, have clinics and offer limited scope assistance—your only commitment is for training and the time spent at the clinic. In addition, California courts allow limited scope representation (also called unbundled legal services), so that you can take on a portion of a representation without committing to full representation for the entire case.
- Is pro bono service required to become licensed to practice law?
Not currently in California. The California State Bar’s Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform recommended, among other things, a 50-hour pro bono or reduced-fee legal services requirement. This recommendation has been submitted to the California Supreme Court for consideration. Other states like New York may have a pro bono requirement. Individual law schools also may have a pro bono or service requirement to graduate.