Getting Started with Pro Bono

What is Pro Bono?

This term, which comes from the Latin pro bono publico, literally meaning “for the public good,” typically refers to activities performed voluntarily and free of charge to help people of limited means. Common examples include:

  • Volunteering as an intern at a legal services organization or government agency
  • Working with a private attorney on a case that they have taken on for free
  • Helping a volunteer attorney advise a nonprofit organization
  • Staffing a drop-in clinic with a bar association or student organization
  • Conducting know-your-rights presentations at an area community center

Why Do Pro Bono?

Students share so many reasons to do pro bono work, like:

  • Gaining practical, real-life experience with clients, court, and legal processes
  • Learning more about substantive legal issues
  • Getting out of the classroom to connect learning with real-world experience
  • Helping meet critical legal needs and gaining satisfaction by giving back to the community
  • Developing leadership skills
  • Networking with attorneys and the legal community
  • Building your resume and making yourself more employable

So a harder question might be – Why NOT do pro bono?

To watch attorneys from across sectors including large firms and public interest organizations discuss their commitment to pro bono activity and how it has helped their legal careers, click here: Pledge Pro Bono Kickoff: Helping Others while Enhancing Your Career.

Finding a Good Fit

If you’re not sure what type of opportunity is right for you, here are some questions to consider:

  • What legal issues, causes, or communities are you most passionate about?
  • What time can you commit to this opportunity?
  • What do you hope to gain from the opportunity? Think about what you have already accomplished and learned at what skills and experiences you’d like to add to your toolbox.

Here are a few examples of pro bono opportunities and who they might be a good fit for:

I only have a few hours. You can almost always find a pro bono opportunity that fits around your scheduling needs. If you are strapped for time, consider a research and writing opportunity that you can do on your own time, or start with a 1-day opportunity or an occasional shift at a community legal clinic. Search the Guide by “Time Commitment” to find something that works for you!
I am looking for a good first pro bono opportunity where I can work with real clients. Try an experience that lets you conduct “intakes” or client interviews so that you increase your comfort level in communicating with clients, be exposed to a range of legal issues, develop your issue spotting skills, and meet attorneys. ATJI’s Moderate Means Program is a great example, as are community legal clinics, where you might conduct initial client interviews and meet with clients under the supervision of an attorney. The Resource Guide regularly lists legal clinic opportunities, such as the King County Bar Association’s Neighborhood Legal Clinics or Q-Law‘s LGBTQ Clinic).
I am ready to dig deep and have regular time to commit. Consider an externship or clinic course, or a long-term placement like a summer or term-time internship. If you can commit at least 5-10 hours per week you will find many opportunities to work closely with a supervising attorney on your own cases or projects.
I want to expand my leadership capacity and network. Student-Initiated Pro Bono Projects are a great way to learn about specific legal issues while working and making decisions alongside peers and maintaining an organization. Or, consider joining a Bar Association or Access to Justice Board Committee. These organizations are welcoming of student members and provide great leadership and networking opportunities.
I am interested in public sector or policy work. CPD provides links to many resources that can help you explore what type of venue is right for you, including work in government agencies, policy advocacy organizations, and the political sphere.
I want to do public interest work but can’t afford to work for free! Many law firms have a deep commitment to pro bono work. CPD provides resources to help you learn more. There are also many opportunities to find public interest stipends or funded positions.