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Short for pro bono publico [Latin, For the public good]. The designation given to the free legal work done by an attorney for indigent clients and religious, charitable, and other nonprofit entities.
As members of a profession, lawyers are bound by their ethical rules to charge reasonable rates for their services and to serve the public interest by providing free legal service to indigent persons or to religious, charitable, or other non-profit groups. A lawyer's free legal service to these types of clients is designated as pro bono service.
Lawyers have always donated a portion of their time to pro bono work, but in the United States the demand for legal services from people who cannot afford to hire an attorney has grown since the 1960s. Lawyers previously donated time on an ad hoc basis. The establishment of legal aid organizations to serve indigent persons in the 1960s changed the way attorneys obtained pro bono work. Legal aid attorneys, who were unable to satisfy all the legal needs of poor people, created programs to recruit private attorneys willing to donate some of their time. These programs recruit attorneys and then train them to handle common types of cases.
The American Bar Association (ABA) has become a national leader in the effort to enhance pro bono legal services. The ABA Center for Pro Bono assists ABA members and the legal community in developing and supporting effective pro bono legal services in civil matters as part of the profession's effort to ensure access to legal representation and the justice system. The center helps create, design, and implement pro bono programs. It sponsors an annual conference for bar leaders, pro bono program managers, legal service staff, and others involved in the delivery of pro bono legal services to poor people.
State and local bar associations also assist in the creation and maintenance of pro bono programs. Despite these efforts, the need for legal services outstrips the pro bono services provided. State court systems have explored ways to get more lawyers involved in donating their time and skills. In Minnesota, for example, the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers state, "A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year" (rule 6.1).
Coulter, Dolores M. 2001. "The Pro Bono Priority." Michigan Bar Journal 80 (September).
Minnesota Rules of Court. 1996. St. Paul, Minn.: West.