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Pro Bono Attorney

Pro Bono Attorney

What is a Pro Bono Attorney?
Pro bono attorneys are those who give their legal advice for free.  Many State bar associations require an attorney to render a specified minimum number of hours of pro bono legal services per year, usually 20.  It is considered a matter of professional responsibility that an attorney devotes some of his time to helping the poor and indigent.  The law considers being an attorney a privilege and with it should come a responsibility to aid society.

How does someone find a Pro Bono Attorney?
Almost every attorney barred in the United States is required by their State to contribute some form of pro bono service.  For that reason it is easy to find a pro bono attorney, it just requires legwork.  Legal aid services for all aspects of the law can be found throughout the United States and in most counties in the United States.  The American Bar Association also has a division devoted solely to the interests of pro bono work.  In addition, most law schools have pro bono services that they provide to individuals in the community including: advocacy for the elderly and the innocence project.  These cases are handled primarily by law students with supervision by attorney professors.  
How to qualify for pro bono services?
Depending on the matter a pro bono attorney may or may not be a right.  In criminal matters it is a constitutional right that an individual accused of a crime is permitted to have an attorney and if he can’t afford an attorney then one will be appointed for him.  This type of lawyer is known as a public defender and his salary is paid by the State.  In civil matters there is no constitutional right to a free lawyer; however legal services and many firms take on cases for the indigent.  The standard is usually that the individual’s income is less than 125% of the federal poverty level although this is not a requirement.  In addition, those that are elderly, disabled, and the victims of domestic violence or enlisted in the military are often given pro bono status even if their income is slightly above the recommended limit.  

What do I need to know when meeting with a Pro Bono Attorney?
There are a couple of things that an individual should know and expect when they go to see a pro bono lawyer.  First and foremost, when you speak to a pro bono attorney, even though it is a free service, the attorney/client privilege attaches.  Anything you say to your pro bono attorney is considered private and confidential and may not be disclosed to anyone without the clients consent.  It is important to note that the attorney/client privilege does not attach when conversations with the attorney are conducted in a public arena or with outside individuals present.  Therefore, when a client meets with an attorney it should be in his/her office and alone.  An attorney’s legal staff; including paralegals and legal assistants, are considered to be bound by the same rules.  
The second thing a pro bono client should know is that because supply of pro bono lawyers is limited the ability to get a pro bono attorney who specializes in a specific legal field will be difficult.  It is in the individual’s best interest to contact legal services and local law firms about pro bono attorneys well before any court date so that a suitable attorney can be found in time.  
A pro bono client will also want to collect all documents and information about your case in preparation for the first meeting with the pro bono attorney.  Pro bono attorneys are often attorneys employed by law firms and work pro bono cases to fulfill professional responsibility requirements.  For that reason it is likely that a pro bono attorney will not be able to devote as much time to a pro bono case as he/she would like.  For that reason it is important that the client make the information gathering process as easy as possible.  Before any meeting with a pro bono attorney an individual should call ahead and find out what documents will be needed for that specific case.

Most pro bono services have pro bono attorneys that specialize in specific fields but it is important that an individual seek out specialty pro bono attorneys as soon as the possibility of litigation arises.  These services are often understaffed and an individual will need time to find an appropriate pro bono attorney.
Experience with a specific field may be difficult to find.  Many pro bono attorneys take on cases that interest them in a field that they may not practice much in but would like to gain experience in.  An individual should be clear in asking what their pro bono attorney’s experience is with that aspect of the law.  If an individual is using aid from a law school it will be expected that the cases are handled primarily by law students who have little to no experience litigating in any situation outside of moot courts and trial teams.

The definition of pro bono equals that of “free.” In that instance the legal fees associated with representation are free of charge.  This does not, however, mean that filing fees, court costs and other miscellaneous expenses will be free of charge.  These fees are the responsibility of the client.  If the client cannot afford these fees he/she may file an affidavit with the court for a “forma pauperis” which indicates that one cannot pay fees and the court will consider waiving such expenses.

What to ask a pro bono attorney
There are a number of thing an individual should ask their pro bono attorney before moving forward with any type of legal situation.  These include, but are not limited to:
How many years have you been practicing?
How many in this specific field?
How much time can you devote to my case?
What have been your results in similar cases?
Have you had any disciplinary action taken by the State?
What challenges do you see in the case?
Why are you taking my case?
How will you keep me informed?
Are you familiar with the jurisdiction, judges, prosecutors, etc.?
What will be the final outcome?