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

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

If you talk to enough people about pro bono, it won’t take long before you will hear nonsense like pro bono is the solution to chronic underfunding of legal aid, or equally silly statements like pro bono is nothing more than an overhyped waste of time and energy. And a whole lot of other untruths in between those two extremes.

The truth is pro bono indeed does play an integral role in the larger access to justice landscape, not to mention in our legal profession and in the justice system. But that role too often is overstated, understated or simply misstated and misunderstood, to the detriment of all of us who care about pro bono and equal access to justice.

As we kick off this year’s Pro Bono Week, over the next few days I will be blogging about pro bono as it relates to the key stakeholders in the access to justice cause, closing the loop at the end with some suggestions for all of these stakeholders going forward.

Who am I to speak out on this issue?

Over the course of my almost 25-year career as a lawyer, I’ve been privileged to experience pro bono from just about every key vantage point. Starting out in private practice in a small/midsized firm (depending on your definition), I volunteered in a variety of pro bono programs, was the pro bono coordinator for our firm, and served in a number of bar leadership roles on these issues.

After joining the CBF nine years into my career, I found myself at the helm of two pro bono programs that engaged dozens of private bar volunteers and served hundreds of clients each year. Once we correctly realized that running pro bono programs was the job of our partner organizations and not ours, and properly focused on our role as a systemic leader, I’ve had a great 30,000 feet above view of the system. That includes working with the courts and a broad range of stakeholders in developing a number of successful pro bono programs (and on occasion some that weren’t as successful), working with firms and companies of all sizes on pro bono issues, evaluating programs as a grantmaking organization, advocating and helping secure funding and support for good pro bono programs, and playing a lead role on all kinds of systemic pro bono issues like rules, policies, and community-wide best practices.

Finally, in my time at the CBF we also have been a pro bono client for many different purposes (e.g., employment, contract, corporate, real estate, IP), and we have benefited quite a lot from it.

So whatever else might be said for my career thus far, I’ve had a pretty broad range of pro bono experience, and as the old saying goes, that probably makes me an expert in nothing. What it does give me, though, is an uncommon vantage point that, when combined with the systemic lens I have had for 16 years now in my current role at the CBF, provides a pretty good and balanced perspective on where and how pro bono fits into the broader spectrum of access to justice.

So now what?

Over the course of this week, I’m going to use that broad-based vantage point to talk about pro bono from the perspective of five key stakeholders in this cause:

  • Lawyers, Law Firms, and Corporate Legal Departments
  • Pro Bono and Legal Aid Organizations
  • Government
  • Courts
  • Bar Associations, Foundations, Access to Justice Commissions, and Other Systemic Players

I’m not going to do a separate post on the obviously critical vantage point of the client other than to say what should go without saying: any client, whether paying or pro bono, should be able to expect the same level of commitment, service and competence from their lawyer.

Thanks for reading along so far and I hope this is a start of a bigger conversation as the week goes on.

Read 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