Before committing to handle a pro bono case, you should (1) understand the pro bono program’s expectations and (2) receive any needed training and support.
You should ask the following questions of the program staff:
Does the program thoroughly screen clients?
Before referring a case to a volunteer lawyer, the program should, at a minimum, complete a comprehensive screening of clients. The program should provide a volunteer lawyer with a thorough statement of the facts of the case and an assessment of its nature at the time of referral.
Does the program’s intake system ensure that I will receive a meritorious case or project?
By providing thorough intake and screening procedures, a program can provide you with assurance that you are receiving a meritorious case involving an eligible (financially and otherwise) pro bono client.
Will the program assign me with a case which matches my expertise, interests, and timing restraints?
By providing thorough intake and screening procedures, a program can provide you with assurance that the case is within the parameters of the type of work for which you volunteered.
What types of training and support does the program offer to its volunteers?
The program should offer a variety of support mechanisms and training to its volunteer lawyers. Programs may offer all or some of the following support to its volunteers:
- Substantive law and procedural training
- Legal manuals (containing compiled legal research)
- Form pleadings
- Mentors (program staff or more experienced volunteer lawyers)
Time management support
- Co-counseling arrangements
- Program staff attorneys to cover in emergencies
- Agreement to take the case back if it becomes too onerous for a volunteer
Training specific to the agency and its clientele
- Handbooks with program policies and staff contact information
- Information concerning clientele of the agency
- Client sensitivity training
Malpractice insurance and administrative/logistical assistance
- Malpractice insurance
- Office space for client interviewing and meetings
- Administrative assistant/legal support (through volunteer paralegals, law students)
What expenses will I be responsible for?
Some pro bono programs require that the clients pay for out-of-pocket expenses such as court costs, filing fees, etc. Others maintain a fund to cover the same, while others allow the volunteer to pay these expenses.
Will I be covered by the program’s malpractice insurance?
Most pro bono programs have malpractice insurance available for volunteers. If you are currently working at a law firm or a company, it is also a good idea to inquire as to whether your law firm or company will provide you with malpractice insurance while engaging in pro bono work.
What is my relationship with my pro bono client and the pro bono program?
A pro bono program should clearly communicate the nature of the relationship it is establishing between the program, a client and a volunteer, and should delineate each party’s rights and responsibilities through a written retainer agreement. A volunteer lawyer should discuss with the pro bono client the extent of the representation the volunteer agrees to undertake on the client’s behalf. A retainer agreement should clearly reflect the agreement reached by a volunteer and a client.
How can I ensure that the client understands that I am agreeing to provide representation only in a specific matter?
Often clients may have more than one legal problem. A retainer agreement should clearly state that the pro bono attorney is providing representation only in the matter referred. A program should assure volunteers that they are not expected to provide representation in other matters, and instruct them to refer clients back to the program if the need arises. In those cases where a volunteer is willing to assist the client in additional legal matters, programs can provide technical assistance and advice as needed to the volunteer.
Once I accept a case, will the program keep in touch with me?
A pro bono program should maintain regular communications with its program volunteers through periodic follow-ups as part of the program’s comprehensive tracking system. A tracking system provides a mechanism for determining that volunteers are progressing on cases the program has placed with them and that the program is providing effective and high quality legal services to the client.
Once I accept a case, what are my responsibilities to the pro bono program?
Generally pro bono programs ask that the volunteer attorneys keep the program apprised of the status of the case on a regular basis (for example, every 60 to 90 days); seek support and mentoring when needed; advise the program of any problems or issues that arise; advise the program when the case is closed, the disposition thereof, and the numbers of hours you spent on the case; and complete any evaluation forms.
What if the case becomes too much for me to handle?
Many pro bono programs can facilitate co-counseling arrangements with program staff attorneys or with other volunteer lawyers. Programs also may offer training opportunities and/or experienced mentors who can assist you with the case. In some instances, the program may agree to take the case back if it becomes too onerous for a volunteer.
What is my company's or law firm's policy on using company letterhead and corporate offices for my pro bon client cases?
If you are currently working at a law firm or company, it is important to understand your law firm's or company's policies prior to working on a pro bono case. Some companies and law firms prohibit their attorneys from using their letterhead and offices for an attorney's pro bono cases. Many pro bono programs will provide you with agency letterhead or meeting space in the event you are unable to use your company's services.