Tips on how to get a lawyer to work pro bono

November 19, 2015

Whether you’re a penniless citizen suffering injustice or the famous founder of a high-profile cause, there are times when volunteer counsel might just help. And there are layers who will sometimes take on a case for free or pro bono publico   (for the public good).

Tips on how to get a lawyer to work pro bono

1. What is pro bono?

  • Abbreviated from the Latin expression pro bono publico— "for the public good" — the term describes situations where lawyers offer their services either for free or at a greatly reduced price.
  • The scope of the work is effectively unlimited. It could involve a free, one-time consultation for a tenant facing illegal eviction all the way up to complex, ongoing services like conducting petition management or lobbying parliament on behalf of a non-profit advocacy group.

2. Eligibility

  • Since lawyers tend to donate their time and skills as a way to give back to society, most pro bono work is done for people and organizations of limited financial means who have been pitted against powerful forces.
  • Beyond that, however, the name really does say it all.
  • Whatever the requested legal mission may be, it needs to pass the perceptual hurdle: "Would a positive outcome genuinely represent a benefit to the public?"
  • While it's true, that can be highly subjective, but keep in mind that people generally agree on what constitutes acts of injustice, or which social causes have truly worthwhile goals.

3. Applying for help

  • Most provinces have their own associations of pro bono lawyers easily found by an Internet search.
  • The sites spell out various ways to contact prospective lawyers.
  • They can be reached by phone, email or at public clinics, which are either permanent or revolving pop-up sites in the community.
  • The services are multi-faceted. For example, Pro Bono Law Ontario is a registered charity that organizes a variety of legal projects, while its companion site,, represents its face to the public, explaining policies and receiving online applications for service.

4. Why do they bother?

  • More than others, lawyers see the consequences of inequality before the law.
  • Much of their motivation is, therefore, simply to see access to justice extended to downtrodden elements of society.
  • However, they do reap some compensation.
  • Awards for excellence in pro bono law are important to a young lawyer on the way up.
  • So, too, is developing a public reputation.
  • Thus a client’s task is to recognize, respect and enable those factors.

5. Your role

  • Let’s assume you’ve made your case for pro-bono assistance and a lawyer has agreed to help.
  • Now is not the time to settle back and do nothing.
  • There’s much to be done, for example, as an ad hoc legal assistant — gathering statements, collating documents, and so forth.
  • Moreover, since the lawyer is fitting your case into an otherwise busy work schedule, you can’t expect her to reply instantly every time you call.
  • You, on the other hand, are well advised to make every attempt to cooperate in word and deed as promptly as possible.
  • The more help you give her, the more she’s likely to give you.
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