There are many times when I have been asked to take a case without compensation. This is called “pro bono work,” and it’s considered an important part of the legal tradition. The practice stems from an altruistic notion that attorneys, like doctors, should not refuse to perform their services if a person cannot pay “reasonable attorney fees.” It’s so pervasive in the profession that practicing attorneys are “suggested” to perform at least twenty hours’ work pro bono each year.
Pro bono work is extremely important, and I do my fair share annually. Currently, I do a good bit of pro bono work representing domestic violence victims in Knox County’s Fourth Circuit Court. It’s hard work, but important, and I’m glad to do my part. However, in my “regular job,” it’s hard to accept work on a “pro bono” basis. I can joke all I want about having a wife and a child and needing to pay the bills, but that usually falls on deaf ears when people want free legal advice. So when I came across something from Jay Bodzin, a member of the Oregon State Bar, I had to make sure I wrote it down. I’d like to share his words with you, paraphrased a bit, so you can understand the “pro bono” aspect of the legal profession a little bit better.
- Pro Bono work is usually reserved for situations with larger social implications beyond that of the client’s immediate concern. I will cite to the hit television show “Scandal” as an excellent example of this. In one episode, protagonist Olivia Pope offers to take on the case of a young White House intern accused of sleeping with the President “pro bono” because the White House engaged in a repeated pattern of slandering young women of the same charge. This is a clear-cut pro bono case—it doesn’t just affect you, there’s a potential large pool of people affected if something isn’t done about it. Conversely, if you’re looking for someone to take on your personal child custody case for free because your ex is doing drugs—well, unless there’s a larger issue at stake then you’re not really a “pro bono” kind of case.
- Courts cost money, even when your attorney doesn’t. Most people are raised on a steady diet of “Law and Order” or other lawyer shows where the words “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you” become a pervasive mantra. This leads people to think when they are wronged, the Courts automatically entitle them to free legal help. Courts cost money, though—there’s filing fees, court costs, mediation fees, court reporter fees, and more. Attorneys have rules prohibiting them paying for this stuff unless there’s a reasonable expectation they’ll be repaid. So even if your attorney doesn’t cost you anything for representation, expect to pay something to cover costs.
- People don’t value what they don’t pay for. Over three years’ worth of time as a lawyer, I’ve seen this true of ALL professions—not just mine. If you’re not personally invested in something as important as a Court case, then there’s a good chance you’re going to devalue the services we provide when we do provide them. Lawyers will put countless hours and energy into your case until we’ve got nothing left—it’s what we’re trained to do. When the client gets frustrated, stops returning our phone calls, and will not do basic things like show up dressed nicely to Court, well, it makes us look bad and it makes you look bad. We’ll still slug it out, but we have to work with what we’ve got. It’s also extremely difficult for attorneys to get out of a case. Clients can walk out and fire their attorneys at any time. Lawyers, on the other hand, have very specific steps they must take before a Court allows them to withdraw. So remember—it may be easy for you to be less invested, but we’re not going to be that way.
- Finally, lawyers are dead last in job security. There’s simply not enough jobs out there for attorneys to make a strong living these days. More and more enter the profession yearly, with staggering amounts of debt from law school and undergraduate student loans. Court appointed “indigent defense” cases are few and far between, and the ones that do come our way compensate us less than what a plumber makes when you factor in the cost of overhead. Add in the costs of licensing fees, professional taxes, continuing legal education seminars, and you get many attorneys who are lucky to pay the bills each month—much less “make six figures out of school” like a local AT&T representative thought I made.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask about getting pro bono representation from an attorney. If you truly can’t afford one, and you need help, go talk to an attorney and see if he or she will take the case at a reduced rate or “pro bono.” We are good people at heart, and we got into this business to help others. Just keep the above four points in mind when you go out looking for “pro bono” or “free” legal help and the discussion will be much smoother when it happens with your counsel.