Author: The Chicago Bar Foundation
Last updated: November 2011
Before committing to handle a pro bono case, you should (1) understand the pro bono program’s expectations and (2) receive any needed training and support. You should ask the following questions of the program staff:
Before referring a case to a volunteer lawyer, the program should, at a minimum, complete a comprehensive screening of clients. The program should provide a volunteer lawyer with a thorough statement of the facts of the case and an assessment of its nature at the time of referral.
By providing thorough intake and screening procedures, a program can provide you with assurance that you are receiving a meritorious case involving an eligible (financially and otherwise) pro bono client.
By providing thorough intake and screening procedures, a program can provide you with assurance that the case is within the parameters of the type of work for which you volunteered.
The program should offer a variety of support mechanisms and training to its volunteer lawyers. Programs may offer all or some of the following support to its volunteers:
Time Management Support
Training Specific to the Agency and Its Clientele
Malpractice Insurance & Administrative/Logistical Assistance
Some pro bono programs require that the clients pay for out-of-pocket expenses such as court costs, filing fees, etc. Others maintain a fund to cover the same, while others allow the volunteer to pay these expenses.
Most pro bono programs have malpractice insurance available for volunteers. The individual opportunities listed on IllinoisProBono.org (see Volunteer Search tab) typically indicate whether an organization offers malpractice coverage to its volunteer attorneys. If you are currently working at a law firm or a company, it is also a good idea to inquire as to whether your law firm or company will provide you with malpractice insurance while engaging in pro bono work.
A pro bono program should clearly communicate the nature of the relationship it is establishing between the program, a client and a volunteer, and should delineate each party’s rights and responsibilities through a written retainer agreement. A volunteer lawyer should discuss with the pro bono client the extent of the representation the volunteer agrees to undertake on the client’s behalf. A retainer agreement should clearly reflect the agreement reached by a volunteer and a client.
A retainer agreement should clearly state that the pro bono attorney is providing representation only in the matter referred. A program should assure volunteers that they are not expected to provide representation in other matters, and instruct them to refer clients back to the program if the need arises. In those cases where a volunteer is willing to assist the client in additional legal matters, programs can provide technical assistance and advice as needed to the volunteer.
A pro bono program should maintain regular communications with its program volunteers through periodic follow-ups as part of the program’s comprehensive tracking system. A tracking system provides a mechanism for determining that volunteers are progressing on cases the program has placed with them and that the program is providing effective and high quality legal services to the client.
Generally pro bono programs ask that the volunteer attorneys keep the program apprised of the status of the case on a regular basis (for example, every 60 to 90 days); seek support and mentoring when needed; advise the program of any problems or issues that arise; advise the program when the case is closed, the disposition thereof, and the numbers of hours you spent on the case; and complete any evaluation forms.
Many pro bono programs can facilitate co-counseling arrangements with program staff attorneys or with other volunteer lawyers. Programs also may offer training opportunities and/or experienced mentors who can assist you with the case. In some instances, the program may agree to take the case back if it becomes too onerous for a volunteer.
If you are currently working at a law firm or company, it is important to understand your law firm's or company's policies prior to working on a pro bono case. Some companies and law firms prohibit their attorneys from using their letterhead and offices for an attorney's pro bono cases. Many pro bono programs will provide you with agency letterhead or meeting space in the event you are unable to use your company's services.
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