Coaching T-Ball Doesn’t Cut It: Pro Bono, Low Bono, and the Justice Gap

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What do you and your colleagues personally consider pro bono?  Billed but unpaid legal work?  Volunteering to judge a weekend trial competition?  Coaching your kid’s t-ball team every spring?

There is a wide misconception that anything a licensed attorney does for their community for free is pro bono work.  In fact, a quick google search on “ideas for pro bono” reveals advice from practicing attorneys guiding their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities in precisely the ways listed above.  As keyholders to the gate between many and justice, ordinary volunteer activities aren’t sufficient to fulfill an attorney’s pro bono obligation.  The necessary link between the justice gap and an attorney’s pro bono responsibility is too often and too easily overlooked.

Rule 6.1 provides:

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The rule clarifies that the aforementioned activities don’t cut it when it comes to pro bono. To be appropriate for reporting, an attorney’s activities need to address the Justice Gap in some way. But what about your neighbor who needs a simple will made? Or their son or daughter who needs help with a traffic ticket? Does this sort of pro bono work fulfill your obligation to your community? The answer, of course, is “it depends.”

While civil rights and public interest law refer to a broad range of activities contributing to the public good and societal interest, poverty law requires individual client inquiries. As the comments tell us:

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So, of course, if you’re an attorney looking to dedicate your pro bono hours to fill the Justice Gap, JusticeServer is an easy shortcut.  The clients whose cases are listed in JusticeServer have already met eligibility requirements for pro bono assistance under poverty law set out by legal aid organizations.

Yet, the Justice Gap does not only consist of identified by legal aid eligibility standards.  There are still many individuals that do not meet legal aid criteria that nevertheless cannot afford an attorney.  Simply put, just because something isn’t poverty law under the facial definition does not mean it’s not important to close the Justice Gap.  The comments expand:

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So, the key inquiry in determining whether or not your free services to a friend or family member is whether or not that individual has sufficient resources to compensate counsel.  If the individual would otherwise go without representation because they lack resources, you can rest assured that the services rendered are eligible as pro bono.

Poverty law can even cover those that have some ability to pay.  The rule quoted above also includes nominal fee professional services, not just services completely free of charge.  Unfortunately, the rules do not give us guidance on what a nominal fee is.  Those doing court-appointed work may feel as though every fee they receive is nominal.  However, the unspoken tradition is that “nominal fee” under the rule must be lower than court-appointed fees.

So, before you report your pro bono hours, consider whether what you’ve done is a normal community activity or actual legal service.  Just because it involves the law in some way (judging competitions) does not mean it is pro bono work under the rule.  Consider whether your efforts address the Justice Gap.

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