Some cases can’t be pro bono

When a client cannot afford attorney’s fees, he or she may seek “pro bono” legal services. “Pro Bono” is a Latin phrase most often associated with legal representation donated without charge. Attorneys have an ethical obligation to help provide access to justice to all. However, while reasons or circumstances may exist precluding an attorney from accepting a particular case, there are other avenues for people to access such help and for attorneys to provide pro bono services for other issues.

Time commitment is one of the main reasons an attorney may refuse to accept a case pro bono. Some types of cases, such as criminal or custody cases, can take a great deal of time, often requiring hours of research, drafting, and court appearances. Additionally, the attorney’s staff will likely be involved in a case and, therefore, the attorney needs to make sure that their paralegals and legal assistants are available to perform such work in addition to their paid duties. There are opportunities for attorneys to provide pro bono legal services without a significant time or resource commitment, including volunteering in legal clinics and legal hotlines or by simply providing legal consultation.

An attorney may refuse to accept a case pro bono out of the concern for a conflict of interest. If an attorney is working at a walk-in or phone-in clinic, oftentimes there is no opportunity to check for potential conflicts of interest. Additionally, an attorney representing a large organization, bank, or insurance company can be concerned about providing legal advice that would conflict with the interests of their corporate client. Many states have exceptions to the conflict rules when the attorney is providing legal services pro bono to encourage attorneys to participate in pro bono clinics.

An attorney practicing in a non-litigious area of law may not accept a pro bono case because it might require a court appearance. As counterintuitive as it might seem, some attorneys are simply not comfortable appearing in court. In many situations, the time and financial commitment required for a litigated case goes beyond the attorney’s capacity. However, there are many ways for a non-litigious attorney to provide pro bono services that do not involve court appearances at all. Walk-in or call-in legal clinics or appointments, limited to legal advice only, allow the attorney an opportunity to provide pro bono services on their own terms.

Occasionally, a case does not qualify for pro bono services. “Pro Bono Publico” is a Latin phrase meaning “for the good of the public.” Therefore, pro bono work is intended to better the community by furthering access to the judicial system for all citizens and advocating for those who are not being heard; it is not simply free work upon demand. It is a common misconception that all attorneys must do pro bono work and if a person cannot afford to pay for the attorney’s services, the attorney will handle the case for free. However, the requirement to provide pro bono services, while strongly encouraged by the State Bars, is an ethical one, not legal, and it is a result of a self-imposed moral obligation. Furthermore, typically only individuals accused of crimes are entitled to an attorney at no cost.

In sum, there is no reason not to do pro bono work. It affords attorneys the opportunity to get professional experience; it builds reputation; and most importantly, it allows the attorneys to give back to their communities. If an attorney refuses to provide free services, it is likely because the case is not one suited for their pro bono service.

Natalia Vander Laan is a Minden attorney and owner of Vander Laan Law Firm


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