The Tradition of Pro Bono Representation



The premise that the law should be equally applied to all persons regardless of their ability to pay has its origins in 15th Century England. However, until the 19th Century this concept was only applied to specific cases. Today, pro bono representation is an important part of the legal profession and is applied to a large spectrum of civil cases, though rarely to criminal cases because of the existence of our system of public defenders. In fact, the lawyer’s duty to provide legal representation to those who cannot afford it is written into the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Responsibility/. BA Model Rule 6.1 states:

“Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”

In its commentary section, Rule 6.1 further states:

”Every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional workload, has a responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay, and personal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer. The American Bar Association urges all lawyers to provide a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono services annually. States, however, may decide to choose a higher or lower number of hours of annual service (which may be expressed as a percentage of a lawyer’s professional time).”

The Commitment to Pro Bono Representation Sets the Legal Profession Apart

Its devotion to providing free assistance to the indigent sets the legal profession apart from others.  No other field has the obligation to perform pro bono assistance written into its guiding principles. Men and women entering the legal profession are introduced to the obligation to offer pro bono services while in law school where they are encouraged to provide voluntary law-related services to the poor.  According to the American Bar Association organizations that support pro bono and public service by law students include the ABA Center for Pro Bono, The Public Service Law Network Worldwide, Equal Justice Works, the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) and the National Association of Law Placement (NALP).

In 2014 New York became the first state to require pro bono service as a condition for bar applicants to become licensed for law practice when the state’s highest court when it added a new section to its Rules for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law requiring that nearly every applicant seeking admission to the state bar “shall complete at least 50 hours of qualifying pro bono service prior to filing an application for admission.  The requirement applies to both law school graduates and lawyers from other jurisdictions, including foreign lawyers—who must go through the normal admissions process. The only group exempt from the rule is those seeking admission without examination.”California, Massachuse tts and New Jersey are reportedly considering pro bono requirements similar to those now in effect in New York,

How much time does your firm devote to pro bono representation? What were some of your most interesting or rewarding pro bono cases? How has your involvement in pro bono representation enriched your practice of law?