How To Serve Clients Pro Bono

Guest post by Alaina Sullivan.

The American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct state that “a lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.” Most states also urge lawyers to provide legal services to those who cannot afford them.

Yet many lawyers do not take on pro bono cases.

In its “ABA’s Supporting Justice III: A Report on the Pro Bono Work of America’s Lawyer’s (2013)” report, the ABA took a look at this problem. The good news? Almost no one who responded said they did not want to help pro bono clients. That is why legal aid agencies are getting creative in reaching out to lawyers to make sure impoverished clients’ needs will be met.

Time is Limited

Time is money, but it is also fleeting. Only twenty-four hours exist in a day, and attorneys already struggle to juggle their clients’ cases. Taking on additional cases for no pay is not realistic for some attorneys, which is why so many turn down pro bono cases or never volunteer in the first place. On the one hand, this makes sense, since attorneys who take a pro bono case knowing they cannot dedicate the necessary time would be risking ethical sanction.

It can be a challenge to find the time, but it is possible. And if you do take a case, it is not optional. Carve out time in your schedule and clearly outline expectations with your pro bono client. You control your time, so find ways to allocate it appropriately while meeting your obligations to that client. Also, let the pro bono agency know your time limits so they can assign you something appropriate.

Lawyers Who Lack Experience

Pro bono cases often involve family law, consumer law, and disability/social security. What happens when the attorney does not handle these areas? You cannot represent someone competently in an area in which you have no experience. This is another primary reason attorneys turn down the pro bono cases. But even if you lack experience, you can help.

Most areas have legal clinics where attorneys donate their time to give free legal advice to clients on a walk-in basis. You can participate in one of these clinics to offer what you can in your area of expertise. If you take a full-representation case from a clinic, most legal aid organizations offer resources or mentors to help you handle the case competently.

Another option would be to take on only one of the client’s problems. Perhaps they have a consumer issue that is tied to a disability matter. Work out an agreement to assist the client just on one issue, assuming doing so will accrue to their benefit.

What to Do When a Pro Bono Client Comes Back for More

Attorneys taking pro bono family law cases often find that one simple hearing turns into years of free legal representation. When children are involved, that means eighteen years of disagreements. Odds are, the client will come back.

You could turn the client away and direct him or her back to legal aid, but these same attorneys often find legal aid calling them after the client completes intake due to their knowledge of the case, promising that it will be just one more short hearing. You see the cycle.

What do you do? Create a clear and understandable scope of representation agreements for both the attorney and client to sign. Your representation is for one specific matter only. After the end of that matter, you are done with the case. It is not a perfect solution, but it is better than not taking the case at all. If the client comes back for more, you can decide whether you have the time, ability, and desire to help them again.


The need for pro bono services is great. Be creative with how you handle each case, and give what you can under your circumstances. Do not turn down a case before you give it a chance.

If nothing else, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service offers a host of resources for attorneys including events, training, publications, and links to local legal aid agencies for attorneys interested in helping out in their state. Rather than turn down a case because you think you are unable to handle it, reach out to your local legal aid organization and see how you can help.

Alaina Sullivan is a solo practitioner in the Indianapolis area, focusing on family and juvenile law. She has a soft place in her heart for equal access to justice and has focused a great part of her career in providing affordable or pro bono legal services to those who need them most.

Originally published 2014-10-30. Last updated 2015-12-24.

Featured image via Shutterstock: “Can You Help?


  1. Avatar Veronica says:

    This article is very timely for me as I consider making pro bono a more regular part of my practice. Our State Bar President in a recent speech encouraged pro bono, but she cautioned us to ensure that the client really is someone who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Do you have any suggestions for how to screen clients to determine whether they are truly in need of pro bono services? Legal services organizations face increasingly tighter budgets, and I find that there are many clients that they don’t get around to screening because they don’t fall within the organization’s current priorities. Therefore, private attorneys are not always able to rely on them to pre-screen clients, so we need a time-effective way to do it ourselves.

    • Avatar Alaina Sullivan says:

      The agency I worked for screened by the poverty guidelines. It was based on total household income and how many people lived in the home. They had to fall within 125% of the poverty guidelines. Any cases above those, if they still were within 200% of the poverty guidelines we would refer to attorneys who would take modest means cases for a smaller flat fee. We had the same concerns expressed as well, and honestly those are very valid ones. You can’t always screen out people who are going to hide that they do not qualify either.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      I think the easiest way is usually to let someone else do the screening for you. If not Legal Aid, then ask the client to bring a recent statement showing that they receive income-based public benefits. It’s a safe bet that someone receiving utility assistance or food stamps is eligible for pro bono legal assistance. Just do a little research to determine which benefits are income-based. Your target should probably be about 125% of the federal poverty guidelines.

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