Last year, the first annual National Pro Bono Celebration was held October 25 through October 31. The Celebration was marked by a coordinated national effort to emphasize the importance of pro bono service, to thank the attorneys and paralegals who give their time for this great cause, and to recruit new pro bono volunteers to meet the legal needs of the impoverished and defenseless. Law firms, law schools, courts, bar associations, and local pro bono programs across the country sponsored and participated in local events. The Celebration was a great success and brought much recognition to this critical component of our profession.

As young lawyers, we are often faced with the reality of spending too much time working and not enough time engaged in the many other demands of an active, well-rounded lifestyle, such as spending time with our families, exercising, vacationing, or engaged in social activities. After balancing the demands of work and personal lives, many attorneys simply do not have the time to provide pro bono legal services. However, we as young lawyers should strive to overcome any obstacles to providing ongoing and meaningful pro bono service, not only because we have a recognized ethical obligation to do so, but also so that we can engage in valuable learning experiences and seize the opportunity to utilize our skills to serve the underprivileged.

The historical roots behind the tradition of pro bono legal services are relatively obscure. Nonetheless, scholars have observed that "[t]he duty to represent indigents without a fee in the Anglo-American system has been traced to practices in early Roman tribunals, medieval ecclesiastical courts, and thirteenth-to-fourteenth century Scottish and English legal proceedings." Pro Bono in Principle and in Practice: Public Service and the Professions 1-3 (Stanford University Press 2005). In American history specifically, the tradition of pro bono was not well established until the 1970s, and prior to such time, pro bono requirements were not included in any state or national professional or ethical canons for attorneys. Id. at 5.

What, then, is the source of our ethical duty to provide pro bono services? Although no state has yet implemented a rule requiring mandatory pro bono service, the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct state that every "lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year." ABA Model Rule 6.1. This 50-hour aspiration applies "regardless of professional prominence or professional workload." Comment 1 to ABA Rule 6.1. Most states have adopted some form of suggested or recommend pro bono activity. A summary of each state's pro bono requirements is available on the ABA website at

Although the ABA has considered on several occasions the possibility of adopting a mandatory pro bono service requirement in its Model Rules, no such bid has yet been successful. See, e.g., Harris, Let's Make Lawyers Happy: Advocating Mandatory Pro Bono,19 N. Ill. L. Rev. 287 (1999). Indeed, some attorneys are vehemently opposed to such a requirement, and have responded with what this author would characterize as the wrong approach: court challenges claiming that mandatory pro bono is unconstitutional on the grounds of due process and equal protection. See, e.g., DeLisio v. Alaska Supreme Court, 740 P.2d 437 (Alaska 1987) (court appointment of an attorney to represent an indigent criminal defendant was an unconstitutional taking); Stephan v. Smith, 747 P.2d 816 (Kan. 1987) (Fifth Amendment is implicated by court appointment that imposes genuine interference with attorney's practice, as attorney's services are property under the Fifth Amendment). Attorneys have not, however, been successful on constitutional challenges premised on the basis of the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibitions against involuntary servitude. See, e.g., Williamson v. Vardeman, 674 F.2d 1211 (8th Cir. 1982) (Thirteenth Amendment does not prohibit mandatory forms of public service). Despite these constitutional challenges, the national momentum appears to be heading in the direction of voluntary pro bono service goals, limited reporting requirements of pro bono activity, and alternative options for lawyers who simply do not themselves have the time to serve, such as making financial contributions to organizations sponsoring pro bono work.

This author submits that pro bono legal services should be performed because we as attorneys have a moral obligation, independent of any strict ethical requirement as a prerequisite for retaining our licenses, to serve those who are in need of our help, and that fulfilling this moral obligation is an immeasurably satisfying experience. Indeed, "[p]ersonal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer." Comment 1 to ABA Rule Model Rule 6.1.

In addition to the personal rewards derived from such service, numerous other justifications for pro bono service can be advanced, including, among others, reputational benefits to the person providing the service and his or her employer, career development opportunities, technical training on legal skills, including drafting, interviewing, and arguing skills, learning new areas of law, acquiring and honing leadership skills, developing and bettering interpersonal skills, and broadening personal contacts and networks. See D. Rhode, supra, Pro Bono in Principle and in Practice: Public Service and the Professions,at 98. These justifications provide powerful incentives for young lawyers to pursue pro bono work.

There are many opportunities for young lawyers to get involved in pro bono legal services. The following is a summary of some of the many pro bono programs that need attorney volunteers.

Wills for Heroes and local affiliates

Wills for Heroes is a national foundation implemented by local bar associations that provides free wills, health care directives, and powers of attorney for police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders who put their lives on the line to protect their communities. Data collected by the Wills for Heroes Foundation suggests that 80-90% of first responders do not have wills. Wills for Heroes was formed after the September 11 tragedy to address this need. Wills for Heroes organizers provide a one-stop-shop for both first responders seeking estate planning, and attorneys seeking a convenient way to provide pro bono service in an organized setting with a discrete time commitment.

Wills for Heroes organizers typically hold "events" during which attorneys meet with many first responders and prepare estate documents for numerous individuals over the course of a daylong event. Many state bar associations have adopted the Wills for Heroes program, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, New Mexico, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. Since the program was started, over 10,000 wills and estate planning documents have been created for first responders. The beauty of this program is that attorneys who volunteer to give pro bono service do not need to be experts in estate law. Rather, the Wills for Heroes event organizers provide comprehensive training to lawyers on estate issues on the morning of the event, and attorneys specialized in estate planning and taxation are on-site to answer questions for the entire event.

General information about Wills for Heroes is available on the national Foundation's website, Check with your state or local bar association to find out if the program has been implemented in your state. If not, you can find information on the national Wills for Heroes website about organizing a Wills for Heroes event in conjunction with your local bar association.

The Innocence Project and local affiliates

The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system. The Innocence Project accepts attorney volunteers who are interested in working on cases selected by the Project. The national Innocence Project website is The Innocence Project is located in New York, but local Innocence Project organizations exist in nearly every state. A listing of local innocence project organizations that are in need of pro bono attorney volunteers is available at

American Civil Liberties Union and local affiliates

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nationwide, nonpartisan, membership organization dedicated to working in the courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve constitutional rights and liberties. The national ACLU website is There are local ACLU affiliates in every single state that need volunteer attorneys to work cooperatively with ACLU staff attorneys on pending cases. Volunteering with the ACLU as an attorney involves many diverse types of projects, from researching legal issues and drafting briefs, reviewing proposed legislation, and preparing complaints to administrative agencies.

ABA Pro Bono Initiatives

The ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service has established the national Center for Pro Bono, a comprehensive source of information, resources, and assistance to facilitate and promote pro bono legal assistance. At present, the Center for Pro Bono is sponsoring numerous pro bono initiatives, including the Business Law Pro Bono Project, the Child Custody and Adoption Pro Bono Project, the Medical-Legal Partnerships Pro Bono Project, the Peer Consulting Project, and the Rural Pro Bono Project, all of which you can read about at

Your Local Bar Association, Legal Aid Society, Guardian ad Litem Office, and Pro Bono Initiatives

Many more pro bono opportunities are available at the local level. Check your city, county, and state bar associations' websites for information about upcoming pro bono opportunities. If you want to get involved in a more structured manner, instead of taking on an entire case for an indefinite period of time, many organizations sponsor weekly or monthly events where attorneys can volunteer to answer questions or assist with document preparation for just a few hours, and most do not require any specialized skills or training beyond your law license. Many guardian ad litem offices seek volunteer attorneys to represent children in domestic, dependency and neglect proceedings and offer free training in order to qualify for appointments. Local legal aid and related pro bono projects always need lawyers willing to take on a research or drafting assignment.

If there are no pro bono opportunities available where you are, you can also take the lead in organizing new programs or implementing local chapters of national pro bono organizations. All it takes is a commitment to the public good and a desire to help the underprivileged and those who sacrifice their lives to protect our safety, both here and abroad. Good luck in finding a rewarding pro bono opportunity that meets with your skills, time commitment, and interests! The people in need will thank you immensely.

Bookmark and Share

Categories: Community Service

Actions: E-mail | Comments


Submit Blog

If you wish to submit a blog posting for DRI Today, send an email to with "Blog Post" in the subject line. Please include article title and any tags you would like to use for the post.

Search Blog

Recent Posts




Staff Login