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Pro Bono As We See It

Pro Bono

November 8, 2022

Government Lawyer Pro Bono 

by Cynthia Montoya

On August 16, 2022, the Pro Bono Legal Representation Expansion Amendment Act of 2022 went into effect in Washington, DC, permitting local government lawyers to participate in pro bono subject to certain restrictions. This legal change in our hometown inspired PBEye to do a deeper dive on government lawyer pro bono.

Pro bono work is an ethical obligation that should be easily accessible for every legal professional, including those who work in all levels of the government. Yet, participating in pro bono work can be complicated for some government lawyers. Some offices have policies restricting the type of pro bono work government lawyers can participate in, while others lack easily accessible and straightforward guidelines on what is appropriate work for government lawyers. 

The primary guideline for government lawyers is generally that they can participate in appropriate pro bono opportunities that do not impose conflicts of interest (or perceived conflicts) with their day jobs. They can provide legal services during their own time outside of the office, and they cannot use government resources to provide services. They must be aware of possible conflicts of interest. Further, policies often restrict the type of pro bono work that government lawyers can do. 

The American Bar Association (ABA) and The Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division created  a guide for government lawyers called the Pro Bono Project Development: A Deskbook For Government and Public Sector Lawyers. The deskbook was published in 1998, and is currently undergoing revisions. The deskbook helps explain the restrictions that government lawyers face. For example, judicial branch lawyers have restrictions to maintain an unbiased environment while doing pro bono work. Therefore, such lawyers could not use their titles, resources from work, or office space to do pro bono work. Government lawyers can only offer their expertise during their personal time to organizations and clinics after it is approved by the head of their department. 

For decades, federal government lawyers advocated for the right to do pro bono work, and that paid off in 1996 with Executive Order 12988, which directed federal agencies to develop policies for volunteer work, including legal pro bono. The Interagency Pro Bono Working Group, which is the steering committee for the Federal Government Pro Bono Program, developed pro bono policies and now serves as a resource on federal attorney pro bono work. More than fifty agencies participate and most have written pro bono policies to for their attorneys and legal staff.  The Program operates in Washington, DC, Maryland, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and Dallas.  Example of federal agencies that participate in pro bono include the Department of Justice, and the Internal Revenue Service.  

Some states and local counties have followed the lead of the federal government by creating policies and programs to permit government lawyers and legal staff to participate in appropriate pro bono work, including: 

  • Washington, DC. DC recently passed a law allowing government employees to do pro bono work before any DC court, DC agency, federal court, or federal agency if it does not create a conflict of interest, authorized by an employer, and through an approved organization. This program builds on work by the Office of the Attorney General of DC, which adopted a pro bono program several years ago.
  • West Virginia. In West Virginia, a policy permits government lawyers to do pro bono to fulfill their responsibilities under Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1.  Examples of permissible work include providing brief advice to people of limited means in family law cases, domestic violence protective order cases, landlord/tenant disputes, public benefits and veterans’ benefits cases, consumer protection and bankruptcy; drafting wills, handling simple probates, drafting guardianships; assisting a non-profit organization in the process of incorporation and filing for 501(c)(3) status; and volunteering through West Virginia Free Legal Answers.
  •  Pennsylvania.  The Pennsylvania Bar Association has a Government Lawyers Committee alongside the Pennsylvania Bar Institute co-sponsors, “To Help or Not To Help: Pro-Bono Work for Government Attorneys.” This training discusses the types of legal and non-legal pro bono work government lawyers can do. 
  • Baltimore County, Maryland.  The Office of Law Pro Bono Program has a “Public Lawyers Pro Bono Program” where lawyers can take on pro bono cases on their own time by referral to the office, in the areas of divorce, custody, child support, and bankruptcy, and drafting of simple wills and general powers of attorney. They only accept referrals from Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service and Legal Aid Bureau, Incorporated.

We hope that more state and local jurisdictions will put clear policies in place to maximize the opportunities for government lawyer pro bono.  These lawyers know the communities they serve and have personal knowledge of the many issues affecting low-income and underserved communities. Having clear guidelines and policies will allow government lawyers and legal staff easy access to volunteer to use their unique skills to give back to their local communities.

October 18, 2022

2022 National Celebration of Pro Bono 

by Cynthia Montoya, PBI Intern

With Pro Bono Week right around the corner, now is a great time to solidify longstanding partnerships and make new connections that can inspire pro bono throughout the year! On October 23-29, 2022, the legal community will come together to participate in the American Bar Association (ABA) National Celebration of Pro Bono. The programs and events planned during this week present a great way to get involved in the community, meet new colleagues, and give back through pro bono service. The annual celebration highlights the hard work of legal staff, law students, and lawyers partaking in impactful pro bono work nationwide. Through the national celebration and many parallel local events, there are many opportunities to get involved in-person or virtually.  

Participating in pro bono has many benefits for the communities where the work is being done. Yet, it is also an opportunity to connect with other legal professionals through pro bono teamwork. By joining community-wide pro bono events, volunteers can meet other legal professionals with similar pro bono interests. This is particularly true this year, as more in-person events are being hosted since the start of the pandemic!

The theme for the 2022 National Celebration of Pro Bono is “Law in Everyday Life,” highlighting how legal assistance can help low-income individuals and other marginalized people in all aspects of life. This year’s theme is structured for legal professionals to focus on local needs, local programs, and local issues, with the purpose of furthering a unified effort to provide access to justice for low-income people and individuals in vulnerable communities post-covid. 

There will be events honoring the pro bono work being done throughout the country, and opportunities for training and service in various areas of pro bono.  Multiple events are being hosted throughout the nation by local bar associations, firms, and organizations celebrating Pro Bono week through clinics, training, and other events nationwide, including these examples:

  • legal clinic conducting survey calls to North Carolina drivers who have received tailored advice letters from the center to restore their licenses after being suspended, a clinic hosted by the NC Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC), and staffed by UNC law students.
  • CLE training provides attendees an overview of what is involved in representing a client with an asylum proceeding (in a detention center, in court, or before USCIS) in San Diego, California, hosted by Casa Cornelia Law Center. 
  • recruitment event, where over 40 of Chicago’s legal aid, pro bono, community service, and mentoring organizations will meet in a virtual event on how to make a difference in Chicago, Illinois, hosted by the Chicago Bar Association and Chicago Bar Foundation.
  • Clinics throughout the state of Louisiana will provide Ask-a-Lawyer Consultations in libraries hosted by the Louisiana State Bar Association.

You can learn about more events and opportunities being hosted nationwide through this event map and calendar

In Washington, D.C., the Washington Council of Lawyers is hosting its annual DC Pro Bono Week from October 23-29, concurrently with the ABA celebration. They are hosting events throughout the whole month with opportunities to join either in-person or virtually. These are only some of the many local events happening in DC: 

  • The Washington Council of Lawyers kicks off the Pro Bono Week celebration with Pro Bono Goes Local, featuring guest speakers Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby from the D.C. Court of Appeals and Chief Judge Josey-Herring from the Superior Court for the District of Columbia. 

All events in DC Pro Bono Week are free but require registration. 

There are also affiliated trainings happening before and after DC Pro Bono Week as another way to get involved, including:

  • Trauma-Informed Lawyering is a training to educate about the effects of trauma on survivors, the impact of their legal goals, and tips on how to navigate communication with a client in an informed manner.
  • TzedekDC Debt Collection Defense Training will train volunteers to assist residents in the DC area, primarily east of the river, with legal assistance, and empower and inform people on navigating the legal system.

Pro Bono Week is a fantastic opportunity to get involved in pro bono work, whether you are jumpstarting a new project, or reengaging in a longstanding project. It’s a chance to learn about and train in different areas of pro bono that can be continued into the following year. So find an event near you, and make an important contribution to your community!

If there is any Pro Bono Week event happening that you would love to share with us or tell us about your experience, let us know at

September 10, 2020

A Second Chance through Expungement

With the pro bono legal community’s recent increased focus on racial justice and criminal justice, Pro Bono Institute (PBI) and its Corporate Pro Bono project (CPBO) have seen a growing interest in pro bono work related to criminal expungement. Pro bono work includes both direct legal services to low-income individuals with criminal records and advancing progressive policy reform.  

A criminal record — including an arrest record that did not result in conviction, an old conviction, and a conviction for a misdemeanor – is often a barrier to obtaining employment, housing, education, public benefits, and other necessities, and can have collateral damage  that impact communities, including children.  Expungement, or removal, of arrests or convictions from a person’s criminal record, and sealing criminal records from public view, can help people who have been in the criminal justice system to get a second chance. 

There is systemic racial bias resulting in disproportionate representation of Black and Brown people in the criminal justice system. Working on expungement policy reform and helping people of color to seek expungement of their criminal records is a way to contribute to advancement of racial justice.

If your firm or legal department is interested in getting involved with expungement pro bono work, there are many helpful resources to learn more about the issue, including the following:

  • The Collateral Consequences Resource Center (CCRC) has many excellent resources related to expungement, including legal analyses, model laws, and practice guides. CCRC recently published a National Survey of Restoration Laws regarding the laws aimed at restoring rights and opportunities after arrest or conviction. CCRC, working with lawyers, judges, lawmakers, academics, policy experts, and advocates, produced a Model Law on Non-Conviction Records with the objective of limiting access to and use of criminal records from arrests and criminal prosecutions that do not result in conviction. 
  • CCRC also houses the Restoration of Rights Project (RRP), in partnership with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, National HIRE Network, and Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. The RRP has analyses of the law and policy in each U.S. jurisdiction relating to restoration of rights following arrest or conviction. This provides a 50-state comparison of policies on expungement, sealing and other record relief. Most states provide for expungement or sealing of some certain types of criminal records, though the federal government does not.
  • The Clean Slate Initiative is a national bipartisan coalition advancing policies to automatically clear all eligible criminal records across the United States.  They provide in-kind policy, technical, and advocacy assistance to state and local partners.
  • The National Record Clearing Project, launched by Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, is working to increase and improve record clearing around the country, to close the second chance gap.  Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate law made it the first state in the nation to seal records by automation, without the need to file a petition in court.  This rule change has increased momentum for a federal clean slate bill.
  • The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) produced a webinar about expungement reform and the real-world impact these reforms have on formerly convicted individuals who received a second chance through expungement.

PBI and CPBO see tremendous potential for firms and legal departments to have an impact on this critical issue. By working together, we can help effect change on this systemic criminal justice issue. If you’re interested in getting involved in criminal expungement representation or in policy reform, please let us know at probono@probonoinst.orgor

June 30, 2017

Mischief Managed!

We couldn’t help but notice that the “Harry Potter” series turned 20 this week. Wow! Time flies. You don’t have to be a child or a wizard to appreciate the spell cast by J.K. Rowling. Pro bono-supporting muggles could learn a lot from her and the magical world that she created.

One of our favorite takeaways is from a speech she gave in 2008 at Harvard University: “We do not need magic to transform the world.  We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.” Like all struggles, the march toward access to justice can be slow, demanding, and collective. Progress comes from quiet, persistent efforts of pro bono leaders, supporters, and doers. Despite setbacks and obstacles, we press on, believing that for all the challenges and obstacles there will be some days when we succeed in, to paraphrase another immortal aspiration, bending the long arc of the moral universe ever closer toward justice.

“[H]appiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) Pro bono champions can be that light. We are improving lives, protecting rights, and advancing access to justice every day.  Pro bono has the power to transform and make the world a better place.