“Pro bono” means free. That’s not the literal translation of the Latin words, but it’s the real meaning.
Almost any bar association, whether it’s the American Bar Association or various state bar associations like the South Carolina Bar Association, extols the virtues of lawyers doing pro bono legal work. Simply put, one of the core values of the legal profession is that lawyers should take time to represent those in need.
Are lawyers required to do pro bono work?
No. At least not in the two states I’m licensed in–South Carolina and Michigan.
Pro bono is encouraged but not required, which is how I think things should be. My view is that the government can start requiring me to do pro bono work when it starts paying my office overhead–rent, staff, computers, and on and on. (If you’ve run a business, you’ll understand what I’m talking about here.)
While I strongly disagree with required pro bono, doing pro bono work is a core value of our firm
Our firm does a significant amount of pro bono and low bono (an unofficial term meaning heavily discounted, but not free, legal work) in both our bankruptcy and foreclosure defense practice. We like being able to give back to our community and help those in need.
Here are some things you should keep in mind about lawyers who are willing to do pro bono work:
1. Your problem is not my problem, and the lawyer has no legal obligation to help you for free or at a discount. As the saying goes, “nobody owes you anything.” If your parents didn’t tell you that, well, they should have. Let me repeat this: nobody owes you anything.
2. Keeping #1 in mind, if your lawyer agrees to help you for free or for a discount, you need to realize that you are very fortunate and that the vast majority of lawyers would probably not take your case. You have found someone who is caring and compassionate and wants to help you, and you are lucky you’ve found this person.
3. Keeping both #1 and #2 in mind, you need to fully cooperate and assist your lawyer with your representation. Don’t be lazy. Help with strategy sessions, document assembly, and communication. I once took a pro bono bankruptcy case in which the clients would not–after repeated attempts to get them to do it–assemble the necessary information for their bankruptcy filing. The case then became UN pro bono. The clients then paid for our representation. They were then very cooperative and the case went well. Go figure.
4. There is no magical fund that allows your lawyer to get paid for representing you. NONE. We fill out forms for the South Carolina Bar’s pro bono program so they track pro bono work, but there is NO MONEY allocated by the state for pro bono work. If you think there is, get this idea out of your head.
5. Don’t ask your lawyer to represent you for free. If she feels moved to do that, she will offer. Asking me to represent you for free makes me angry. It’s like going to the grocery store and asking for free food. Abraham Lincoln who, incidentally, was a lawyer who did a significant amount of debtor-creditor work, had a saying: “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” All we have to sell is our time and advice. Don’t ask to take that for free.
6. After representation is over tell the lawyer “thank you” by sending a simple card telling him you appreciate the work he’s done for you. Frankly, it boggles my mind that I have to say this, but most of the folks we do pro bono work for don’t send a card or some nominal gift (I would suggest Oatmeal Raisin cookies) showing us they appreciate what we’ve done for them. As my teenage daughter might put it: “duh.” Don’t be ungrateful! (Sorry, some of you need to hear this.)