The Value of Pro Bono Service


Pro Bono Publico — A Latin term meaning for the public good.  It is the provision of services that are free to safeguard public interest.”
-Black’s Law Dictionary

So with the Thanksgiving holiday being last Thursday and today being Giving Tuesday, I thought the most appropriate installment of my professional development series would be to focus on pro bono service.  Doing pro bono service really helps me to be thankful for all of the blessings I’ve had and to take an opportunity to give back to others.  Since academically I enjoy more corporate and “cold” matters, like contracts, I find that doing pro bono service allows me to actually help people, rather than just focusing on money and other similar business issues.

What Is Pro Bono Service?

Pro Bono opportunities revolve around helping those who typically are not able to secure legal representation due to their economic circumstances.  That means a lot of pro bono clinics or opportunities require that the clients they serve fall under an income threshold; typically the federal poverty line.  Lawyers at clinics or even big law firms take on some of these cases without compensation.  While the clientele typically fall into a similar economic status, their issues are broad and all encompassing, from custody to criminal matters to small business issues.  I’ve seen almost everything during my pro bono opportunities and it’s definitely a great way to get exposure to a lot of different legal issues.

Getting Involved

Most law schools have a whole group dedicated to pro bono service.  Some opportunities might not be available to 1L students since you just started law school, but take advantage of the ones that are because they open doors to more opportunities you can participate in as a 2L and 3L.  There’s also a variety of types of pro bono opportunities for law students; however, you likely won’t be doing a lot of actual legal work since law students aren’t actually licensed to practice law.

The two main types of pro bono service are typically intake or reviewing pleadings.  Intake opportunities revolve around meeting with clients in order to help an organization understand the legal issues they are facing before the organization can decide if they can help.  I like these types of opportunities because you really get to meet with the people you are helping and get to hear about their stories.  It’s definitely an eye opener to see some of the issues I’ve never had to worry about before.  Another form of pro bono service can be in the form of reviewing a case’s pleadings and making recommendations on them to help out actual attorneys.  One of the most popular programs that fits into this category is the Innocence Project, where law student volunteers look through inmate’s files in order to make a recommendation on the viability of their innocence claim.  I’ve seen very successful cases from this project that actually resulted in an inmate’s release based on the work done by the Innocence Project.

Benefits of Pro Bono Service

As I mentioned before, pro bono service not only benefits those without a lot in society, but also the law students who participate in it.  Personally, I have found that having my involvement in pro bono on my resume as a great conversation piece.  Interviewers love to hear about what you do with your pro bono work and how it has enhanced your passion for the law.  Also, some schools, like mine, offer an award if you complete a certain number of pro bono hours while in law school.  Getting an award shouldn’t be the only reason why you do pro bono, but if you enjoy volunteering, then receiving this type of award is just the icing on the cake.

I also find participating in pro bono service is a great way to network with more experienced attorneys.  Since you need an actual licensed attorney to supervise your work, you can meet a variety of people if you participate during a lot of different events.  Attorneys love talking about what they do, especially with law students.  Finally, pro bono service gives you an opportunity to see how what you learned in law school fits into the real world.  Since clients come with all types of problems, you never know when your supervising attorney might look to you for your opinion based on what you’ve learned.

What kinds of pro bono service do you guys do at school?  I enjoy getting to interact with clients so I typically go for intake opportunities over ones that require more administrative and substantive work.

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