What Does 'Pro Bono' Mean?
Whether you’re suing, being sued or just need legal advice, hiring a lawyer can break the bank.
Fortunately, some attorneys offer their services pro bono, meaning free of charge, if you meet certain criteria.
To define pro bono, you should first look at its Latin roots. The term is short for pro bono publico, a Latin phrase that translates to "for the public good." In the legal arena, it means services are offered for free or at a significantly reduced cost, particularly if the case is for the public good.
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When an attorney takes a case ‘pro bono,’ meaning they aren’t charging a client for their legal services, any hours they work aren’t billable (or are billable at a very low, agreed-upon cost). They don’t receive compensation from an outside entity either, so they aren't for their services, regardless of how many hours they put in.
The American Bar Association urges members of the legal profession to do at least 50 hours of pro bono work each year for clients who can't otherwise afford to pay for legal assistance. For many attorneys, providing pro bono services is a great way to expand their skill set, boost their reputation and feel good about their profession.
Lawyers often provide pro bono legal services to nonprofit agencies or civic organizations, such as churches, charitable foundations and civil rights groups. However, pro bono lawyers commonly work in key legal areas, including:
- Family law
- Elder law
- Civil liberties
- Domestic violence
- Public Benefits
- Consumer fraud
- Environmental issues
- Death penalty appeals
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If you’re seeking a lawyer pro bono, it may be possible to find one who will take your case. Pro bono attorneys may accept cases from clients who can’t otherwise afford to pay for legal assistance, depending on the case. Some law firms sponsor pro bono programs, which aim to help people who fall into the following categories:
- Disabled individuals
- Domestic violence victims
- Active military service members
- Low-income individuals and families
- Individuals facing civil rights violations
However, if you’re charged with a crime that could lead to jail time, it’s your constitutional right to representation, even if you can’t afford it. You just have to request a lawyer, and the court will appoint either a county-paid private attorney or a public defender.
If you can’t find a pro bono lawyer to take your case, your local bar association may run pro bono clinics, where you can often seek legal aid and advice from highly experienced lawyers. These associations may also offer legal hotlines, which provide complimentary consultations.
Many law schools also sponsor programs that promote pro bono work. Students may provide services on campus or be paired with established law firms to offer pro bono services to clients with financial limitations. To get information on local programs, contact your nearest law school.
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