What Does Pro Bono Mean?

By Sky Ariella - Sep. 12, 2021

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Professionals who work in the public sector will sometimes provide their services free of cost or at a reduced rate to help their community. This is called pro bono work, and it’s traditionally associated with legal professions.

Many are left confused as to why a hardworking, experienced law professional would give away their time and effort at a free or reduced rate. Even more, that it’s a common practice in this field.

There are a few reasons pro bono exists and how it can benefit a professional to participate in this kind of work.

What Is Pro Bono?

The term pro bono was taken from a Latin phrase, “pro bono publico.” It translates to “for the public good.” When it’s practiced in a professional sense, the term stays fairly true to its original meaning. Lawyers provide their services for a reduced fee, or sometimes even free, in the name of serving the public good.

The Bar Association recommends that certified law professionals contribute 50 of their hours a year to providing pro bono services. Lawyers will dedicate this time to assisting individuals who cannot afford lawyer fees.

Pro bono work exists and is often expected because there’s a substantial need for it. There’s a large population of people in the United States who need help affording a lawyer. Without public aid, like pro bono, these people will go without appropriate legal counsel.

What Are the Benefits of Working Pro Bono?

Consider the following benefits that working pro bono can have for a service provider:

  1. Gain experience. For legal professionals that are new to the game, working pro bono can be extremely beneficial because it provides a wealth of experience.

    Once finishing a legal education and passing the American bar exam, you need real-world experience handling cases. Sometimes, that means taking them on for free.

    Many lawyers take on their first few cases as pro bono work to learn more about applying the skills they learned in law school.

  2. Volunteer in the community. No matter what profession you’re in, giving back to your community feels good and reflects positively on your consideration for others. Legal professionals just have the opportunity to implement their donations through daily work. Volunteering to help out the community is a major upside to working pro bono.

    Your skills as a lawyer are of great value to many people. Offering some help in legal situations can be more impactful on someone’s life than you may realize.

  3. Makes you more confident in your abilities. Confidence is a critical piece of a successful lawyer’s profile. While many people are born with an innate sense of confidence, others have to practice in this department. Taking on pro bono work is a great way to strengthen this skill.

    Putting yourself in the position of being someone’s legal representation more will instill confidence by getting you used to the idea of it. It can be intimidating to know that your client is relying on you. Practicing the steps you need to take early on with pro bono clients can help you build belief in yourself for the rest of your career.

  4. Brings business to the company. When you work for a law firm, bringing business into the company is a big part of contributing. One way to do that is by offering pro bono work. It may seem counterintuitive, but people will appreciate the incredible service you’ve done by providing them with legal aid at a reduced cost.

    The individuals you help will tell their family and friends about what you did for them. Especially if you were able to significantly contribute to fixing their legal burdens. Positive word of mouth can bring in more clients in the future.

  5. Building a reputation. Building a strong, positive reputation is very important for any successful legal professional. One effective way to do that is by providing a beneficial impact on the community through pro bono work. Providing a little free legal aid every once in a while can do a lot for your reputation in the community.

While many might hear about pro bono and think of it as working for free, it’s actually much more than that. Pro bono work can be mutually beneficial for both the client receiving discounted services and the lawyer offering them.

When Should You Work Pro Bono?

  1. When you have an adequate amount of time. Just because you’re working at a reduced or free cost for a client doesn’t mean that you should put any less effort into their legal issue. Before you agree to take on a case pro bono, make sure you have enough time to get the job done.

    Consider other paid clients you may be working with at the moment, and if you have time to include pro bono work in your schedule right now.

  2. If it concerns an issue you’re passionate about. Working pro bono could allow you to work on a case that deals with issues you’re especially passionate about. It could be anything from animal rights to citizenship laws. Everyone has that one issue that makes them ready to get to work, even without pay.

    When you come across a topic and a case that feels that way for you, that’s one that you should agree to work on pro bono.

  3. When it provides you with an opportunity. While you may not be receiving monetary compensation from working pro bono, you may get paid in something potentially more valuable: opportunity.

    Every possible pro bono case could benefit the lawyer by providing them with a learning experience in the court system. Or allowing them to work in a sector of the law that they hadn’t before.

  4. If it’s something out of your comfort zone. Pro bono work is an excellent chance for legal professionals to get out of their comfort zone. You may be able to receive different kinds of cases when you’re willing to adjust your fee to accommodate a client’s financial needs.

    Pushing your legal experience beyond where you feel safe is a way to build confidence and find new outlets that you excel in.

  5. When you’ve discussed expectations of work with the client. Discussing what your services will entail and the work you plan to do is an integral part of building any legal counsel relationship. However, this is especially crucial in pro bono work.

    You’ll probably be dealing with many different kinds of people when taking on these kinds of cases. You should set their expectations accordingly for the work you will provide and how the interactions will go before proceeding with any legal aid.

When Shouldn’t You Work Pro Bono?

  1. When you don’t have the resources to complete the job. When you’re spread too thin, you end up not giving your best work to anyone. You shouldn’t be taking on any new clients, including pro bono cases, when you don’t have the time, energy, or resources to do so. Quality reigns supreme over quantity in the legal world.

    Even if you really want to help a particular individual with their legal issues, you won’t be able to provide them with adequate care if you don’t have what you need to get the job done well.

  2. When the case doesn’t interest you. The goal of pro bono work is to give your skills to those in need, but it should also be about working on something you care about. If you end up choosing to take on pro bono work that’s uninteresting to you, it could end up exhausting.

  3. When you feel your services aren’t valued. Just because you’re donating your work and time doesn’t mean you have to do so if your effort isn’t appreciated. When you’re in a situation where a client isn’t valuing your services or acting appropriately, it may be time to cease your services.

  4. When you’re doing it because you feel like you have to. Some law firms and companies may require their lawyers to work a certain amount of pro bono hours per year. The American Bar Association also provides its own recommendations for how much pro bono work legal professionals should take per year.

    While it’s true that you may have to meet a bottom line of hours, you shouldn’t take a pro bono case just because you’re trying to fill this time. You’ll likely come across a situation that you’re more passionate about or excited to work on. You should wait and save your pro bono time for this.

  5. When you’re picking the same kind of case you always work on. You should use pro bono work as a chance to take on new kinds of issues and cases into your legal practice. It can be tempting to go with situations that you’re very familiar with or handle often. You should avoid this inclination, though.

    Try to find a case different from what you usually spend your hours working on and piques your interest.

Pro Bono Work in Financial Planning

While pro bono work is traditionally associated with the legal field, it is not strictly limited to it. Financial planning is another field where pro bono work is common.

The FPA (Financial Planning Association) mandates its members to devote a portion of their work hours each year to pro bono work. Just as there are families who cannot afford the high price of hiring a lawyer, many cannot spend money on financial planners.

Helping families who are struggling financially reach a place of economic security is a gratifying use of a financial planner’s time. For determining which projects to take on pro bono as a financial advisor, follow the same guidelines we laid out for lawyers.

Pro Bono FAQ

  • Does pro bono mean free? No, pro bono does not mean free. Pro bono is short for pro bono publico, which translates to “for the public good.” However, in the context of the legal profession in America, pro bono does typically indicate that services will be rendered for free.

    At the very least, if a service is being offered pro bono, it will be at a reduced rate.

  • Why do lawyers offer pro bono? Lawyers offer pro bono to gain experience, help underserved communities, and expand the reputation of their firms. Junior lawyers and those experimenting in new branches of the law may take on pro bono clients to learn something while serving a useful function.

    Lawyers who are passionate about a policy or client population that they don’t serve in their day-to-day job may take on a pro bono client to satisfy a sense of duty. And ambitious lawyers view pro bono cases as opportunities to reach a new audience and gain the firm a wider pool of clients.

  • Is pro bono work tax-deductible? No, the IRS states that you “cannot deduct the value of your services given to a qualified organization.” However, if you incur expenses in performing your pro bono work (travel costs, purchasing materials, etc.) you may be able to deduct some amount of that spending, provided you weren’t reimbursed for it.

  • Are pro bono lawyers good? Almost all lawyers are pro bono lawyers at some time, so the quality of a pro bono lawyer depends on their quality at their regular job and their ability to dedicate sufficient time to your case. While younger and more inexperienced attorneys are perhaps more likely to take pro bono cases, they’re also typically more eager to make a good name for themselves.

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Author

Sky Ariella

Sky Ariella is a professional freelance writer, originally from New York. She has been featured on websites and online magazines covering topics in career, travel, and lifestyle. She received her BA in psychology from Hunter College.

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