Is Agreeing To Do Pro Bono Work Risky?

By way of asking this question, I am hoping to capture the attention of those who are hesitant to ever agree to do pro bono work based upon a belief that the answer is always going to be yes. Truth be told, the correct answer to this one is actually “it depends.”

To understand why, start by trying not to buy into the view that pro bono work is somehow different than work done for paying clients. It isn’t. A client is a client regardless of whether money is changing hands. I share all this to underscore that the risks of doing pro bono work are going to be the same as the risks that come with any other legal work that you do. The answer of “it depends” now makes a little more sense because the associated risks are in your control.

Now some will encourage lawyers to embrace pro bono work as a way to expand your horizons, a way to learn a new practice area. Okay. I have no problem with wanting to learn a new practice area as long as you are being responsible in how you go about it. Just as a lawyer should never dabble in an unfamiliar practice area with a paying client, so too should it never happen with a pro bono client. When navigating in unfamiliar waters have a map! Seek guidance. Get educated. Steps such as consulting with a trusted colleague, taking courses at Solo Practice University, or researching the law become mandatory and if that can’t happen, stop. Yes, this may mean that there will be times where the potential pro bono client will be best served by saying no; but remember the old adage “First, do no harm.” If you are not up to the task, take a pass and look to provide assistance to someone who needs help in the areas that you are comfortable practicing in.

A very real risk in the pro bono arena is the temptation to take shortcuts with these clients simply because they are non-paying clients.

Resist this temptation. The basics still need to be documented particularly with things like scope of representation, the decision making process, and what advice was shared and why.

Think about it this way. The Rules of Professional Conduct make no distinction between paying and nonpaying clients so understand that trying to argue that the standard of care should be a lower because the work was being done for free doesn’t fly in the world of malpractice or attorney discipline. The money issue simply isn’t going to be a factor when it comes to professional accountability.

Not only should the basics of file documentation be maintained but all your regular office practices and procedures should be followed when providing pro bono services. For example, many attorneys routinely screen potential new clients in addition to running a conflict check at first contact with all paying clients. Don’t bypass these effective and necessary procedures with potential pro bono clients. While we all know that sometimes paying clients can turn out to be problem clients, why do some attorneys fail to recognize that the same is going to be true with certain non-paying clients? Of course it is. Stay with your tried and true procedures and remember that there is no rule that says you must take on every potential client that comes your way. Sometimes saying no is the best decision.

Finally, there are those who avoid taking on any pro bono matters fearing that their malpractice insurance will not cover that work. While a legitimate concern, this fear can be addressed and alleviated. Initially, is coverage in play? Again, it depends. Lawyers are covered for the work they do on behalf of clients of the named insured which is their firm. If the pro bono client is a client of the firm, and documented as such, there shouldn’t be an issue. That said, if you need additional reassurance make that quick call to your insurance carrier and see what they say.

A potential problem could arise if an attorney were to provide pro bono services under the auspices of another entity such as a legal clinic. Certain firm policies would not provide coverage in this circumstance because this client would not be a client of the named insured (the firm) and other policies would. If considering providing pro bono services in situations like this simply ask a few questions. Many of these other entities will actually have a policy in place that covers the volunteer attorneys for the work they do on behalf of that entity’s clients. For those entities that don’t, call your carrier and clarify whether your coverage will extend to your specific situation and then make an informed decision. The solution may be as simple as providing the work through your firm as opposed to under the auspices of an outside entity or program. In other words, make the pro bono client a firm client instead of having them be the other entity’s client.

My intention with this article is not to present a pro or con position on the high calling of providing services pro bono. I simply wish to shed a little light on the excuses that sometimes get in the way of allowing attorneys to give back professionally. Nothing in life is risk free; but risk can be managed. So the next time you’re asked to help out on a pro bono matter, perhaps what has been shared here will help you feel more comfortable saying “Sure, I’d be happy to.” After all, you are a lawyer being asked to do what you are always being asked to do, which is practice law. Go ahead and have at it.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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2 comments on “Is Agreeing To Do Pro Bono Work Risky?

  • I hate to say it, but I’ve usually (no always) been sorry I’ve taken a pro bono case. Those are the cases that seem to be the hardest fought, and the ones that can go on for years. As a solo, it’s hard to take on these cases that require you to not only give large amounts of your time, but pay costs out of your own pocket. In one of the court systems in my area, the solos take the free volunteer appointed cases in hope of being assigned a paid case, but the big firms almost always get the paid appointed cases. I know a couple of solos assigned to so much free work that it’s putting them out of business altogether. What I would suggest rather than volunteering more than you can handle, which might even be one case, offer limited representation. You can do a part of the case pro bono, and not have all of the responsibility for all of the case. In a limited representation, you can just write a brief, or just go to court. You don’t have to promise to do a lot of free discovery, and spend years on a case you thought you were just helping out on for a short time.

    • I would never take on a pro bono case unless it were through a legal aid agency that provides malpractice coverage. Pro bono/ low income cases take a special set of personal skills that few of us posses. Even if one is skilled in pro bono, the financial costs/lost income may make doing the work prohibitive.

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