Pro Bono Myths and Realities: Final Thoughts

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

Congratulations! We have reached the end of this weeklong Myths and Realities series on pro bono, and you deserve a gold star for hanging in for the whole series.

Over the course of Pro Bono Week, I’ve discussed pro bono from the vantage point of five key pro bono stakeholder groups: lawyers, firms and law departments; legal aid organizations; government; the courts; and bar associations, foundations, access to justice commissions and other systemic players. To protect the guilty, I have not always called out the myths surrounding each stakeholder, focusing instead on the realities and positive steps that each group can and should take to advance this cause. With a little imagination though, you probably can see where I believe the myths are in there by looking at the opposite of what I had to say, and what did not make my list at all.

While each stakeholder group has its own distinct roles and responsibilities, there are a few common themes that have emerged this week, and highlighting those themes seems like a good way to finish out the series.

Pro bono is one part of a larger picture, not a panacea: Pro bono is just one part of a larger, integrated solution to ensuring equal access to justice. As a legal community we need to be clear that government bears the primary responsibility for funding and ensuring we have a fair and accessible justice system for everyone, and we need to understand that our professional responsibility requires us to contribute our time, our money and our influence to advance this common cause.

Pro bono is cheap, but it’s not free: Good pro bono programs require the appropriate investment of staff and resources to succeed. This one can’t be repeated enough.

The comparative advantage, proximity and opportunity prisms: Along with looking at pro bono in the proper context, there are three essential prisms through which lawyers, legal aid organizations, the courts and others should view pro bono: comparative advantage, those areas where a pro bono lawyer, firm or law department is particularly well positioned to efficiently and effectively provide services compared to others who might provide those services; proximity, which the great Bryan Stevenson notes is the importance of lawyers in private practice getting closer to the problems that low-income and disadvantaged people experience in the justice system; and opportunity, which reflects the many benefits that come from doing pro bono work for all concerned.

Pro bono does not exist in a vacuum: With very rare exceptions, pro bono requires a team effort among the stakeholders and proper funding and support to be successful.

We all need to communicate responsibly: The way we communicate on these issues both individually and as a legal community is just as important as the rest of the common themes noted above. A key part of our leadership responsibility as a profession is to educate government and other stakeholders about the importance of access to justice, and that starts with communicating accurately and responsibly about pro bono and other access to justice issues.

One final reality to note: effective pro bono services make a real, meaningful difference in the lives of clients who need legal help.  Striving for a stronger and more effective pro bono and legal aid system does not take away from the great work happening every day through volunteer legal services.

That’s all folks, at least for this week’s series. I hope I’ve been able to at least get you thinking about pro bono and how we can all do it better, and look forward to continuing the conversation as we all works towards the goal of a justice system that is truly fair, accessible and efficient for everyoneRead more in the Pro Bono Myths and Realities series

Part 1  Pro Bono: Myths, Realities, and Its Proper Role in Access to Justice

Part 2  Lawyers, Law Firms and Corporate Legal Departments

Part 3  Legal Aid Organizations

Part 4  The Role of Government

Part 5  The Role of the Courts

Part 6  Bar Associations, Foundations, Access to Justice Commissions, and Other Systemic Players

Part 7  Final Thoughts