The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
April 28, 2023

PBI Organizes Legal Leaders in the Business Community in Support of Legal Aid

By Emily Cardona, PBI Intern

For the seventh year in a row, legal department leaders have rallied to support the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the largest funder of civil legal aid in the United States.

Pro Bono Institute (PBI) and its global in-house project, Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO), along with the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and the Association of Corporate Counsel, recently circulated a letter inviting the General Counsel and Chief Legal Officers to sign on in support of increasing LSC’s funding for Fiscal Year 2024. 

The General Counsels and Chief Legal Officers from 208 corporations signed a letter of support for increased funding for LSC FY2024, which was delivered to Congress on April 25, 2023. Corporations and legal departments of all sizes and from a myriad of different sectors all came together in support of this initiative.

Historically, the support of American corporate leaders has proved to have a positive impact on the allocation of funds for LSC. Between FY2022 and FY2023, LSC saw an increase of $100 million in funding. However, that is still not enough; Low-income Americans currently do not receive any or enough legal help for 92% of their civil legal problems, and roughly half of the requests for assistance received by LSC grantees are turned away, due to a lack of resources. Further, the legal needs of low-income people have only been exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. LSC found that 33% of unmet legal needs are the result of the pandemic, and it is expected that the number of people seeking help from LSC in the next several years will grow significantly as a result. ​​Despite the tremendous need for legal services and the inequities in accessing justice, LSC has been routinely underfunded and under-resourced. 

For FY2024, LSC has requested $1.576 billion in funding, which is $316 million more than last year’s request. The LSC believes this is the minimum required to meet and carry out their congressional mandate “to provide high-quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel” and to match rates of inflation. 

CPBO is proud to support this effort to secure funding for LSC and thanks the GCs and CLOs for demonstrating their commitment to legal aid, access to justice, and pro bono legal services. For more information, please contact CPBO at 

Read the full letter here.

April 26, 2023

Intellectual Property Rights

by Hitha Bollu, PBI Intern

The United States prides itself on being a center for innovation, with much of that innovation coming from smaller enterprises. Small businesses produce over 14 times more patents than large businesses and universities, and employ nearly 40 percent of America’s scientists and engineers. And, of course, even the largest well known innovative firms were once small businesses.   

Unfortunately, without protection of their intellectual property, small businesses can find it difficult to attract capital because potential investors know more established businesses could copy the ideas, methods and practices of smaller businesses, and use their greater resources to market more effectively, undercutting the value of innovation to the original innovator. A European study has shown small enterprises are 21 percent more likely to experience a growth period after filing for an international property right. Moreover, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)around 41 percent of the United States domestic gross product stems from industries that intensively rely on intellectual property protection, and the large majority of companies that apply for patents are small and medium sized enterprises.

However, many small enterprises lack the expertise to obtain effective protection for their innovations and cannot afford outside counsel to help them do so. Furthermore, enforcing intellectual property rights once patents have been obtained can be daunting—costing “around $4 million on average.”

Fortunately, pro bono work plays a vital role in helping small businesses overcome the hurdles they face in protecting their intellectual property, and the U.S. government has stepped in to help lawyers provide such pro bono services to deserving innovators. The USPTO has a pro bono program to match small-time entrepreneurs with pro bono lawyers to protect their inventions. Individual lawyers with training in patent law can offer their services by either signing up for the regional institute or their state’s program. The USPTO Patent Pro Bono Program is a nationally sponsored initiative with more than 125 volunteer patent practitioners, from 23 law firms, who dedicate more than 50 hours of service annually, which has resulted in the filing of more than 250 patent applications in 2021 alone.   

The USPTO’s regional and state programs have significantly increased the number of successful cases with individual clients and engaged lawyers from law firms and corporations. For example, through the Ohio Patent Pro Bono Program, innovators were matched with Attorney Robert Schmitt at the Tarolli, Sundheim, Covell & Tummino LLP law firm to obtain a patent for their motion sensor drink idea. On the corporate legal department side, Gail Su, the lead intellectual property transactional counsel at Hewlett-Packard, organized a team of 33 lawyers (and other legal staff) to partner with the California Lawyers for the Arts Pro Bono Program to help small businesses protect their intellectual property. Many of the USPTO programs, including the Ohio Patent Pro Bono Program, support their volunteer attorneys by providing malpractice insurance. 

Additionally, there are opportunities for attorneys who are not patent lawyers and other legal staff to contribute meaningfully to these efforts. Many USPTO pro bono programs host pro bono clinics predominantly run by students to further address the needs or concerns of smaller companies related to patent acquisition. For example, the Maryland Intellectual Property Legal Resource Center (MIPLRC) establishes patent-specializing clinics to allow law students to also provide pro bono assistance to smaller high-tech or start-up corporations under the guidance of professional attorneys. The MIPLRC clinic allows volunteer lawyers to work together with students to do pro bono work to help smaller institutions or companies gain patenting rights and add social value to their creations by providing firsthand training to better represent clients in intellectual property issues. The law students primarily offer further aid in issues correlated with nondisclosure forms, licensing, and business entity selection and formation. 

While the USPTO Patent Pro Bono Program has partnered with organizations to provide 22 programs nationwide, Kathi Vidal, the president of the USPTO Program, aims to provide more pro bono opportunities for law firms by steadily contacting like-minded organizations to further expand the program as the need for assistance remains great. While the greatest beneficiary of the programs may have been the entrepreneurs that have received assistance,  the legal profession stands to benefit from participating in this work. Beyond personal fulfillment, working to assist entrepreneurs with their intellectual property rights legal needs affords hands-on experience, opportunities to hone client interaction skills, avenues for recruiting law students or obtaining employment, and potential sources of future paying clients, as small businesses grow into thriving entities. PBI urges you to consider participating in this important work.

March 29, 2023

2023 PBI Annual Conference Takeaways

At the end of February, PBI hosted the 2023 Annual Conference in Washington, DC. For the first time since 2019, the Annual Conference was held entirely in-person in Washington, DC. With over 200 attendees from law firms, in-house departments, and public interest organizations, the 2023 Annual Conference sparked passionate and insightful discussions surrounding many pro bono topics. Here are a few takeaways from the Conference:

The number of lawyers doing pro bono in the U.S. is increasing, but so is the number of individuals without access to justice. During their plenary presentation, Jim Sandman, Distinguished Lecturer and Director of the Future of the Profession Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law and the Honorable Bridget McCormack, President and CEO of the American Arbitration Association, discussed the rising number of individuals lacking access to legal representation. In 2022, the Legal Services Corporation reported that 92 percent of low-income Americans do not receive the civil legal help needed in disputes where losing their job, livelihood, home, or children, or securing a restraining order against an abuser were at risk. 

Sandman and Chief Justice McCormack shared potential ways to address this growing need. Since an attorney’s reach can only go so far, we need to go beyond reliance upon individual licensed attorneys to assist in serving underserved clients. One way that this can be accomplished includes employing technology to enable clients to complete forms and find information without a lawyer for simple civil cases. Both Sandman and McCormack also agreed that the legal system as it stands is too complicated for individuals that do not have counsel and that there should be more relaxed regulations that would allow paraprofessionals to assist more freely those who cannot afford a lawyer. 

As our society progresses, it is important that the legal profession progresses as well, especially to assist those that experience barriers to access to justice.  

We are still living in a (semi)-virtual world. While many firms, companies, and organizations have returned to in-person work, there are still a large number operating in both hybrid and remote environments. Additionally, pro bono clients often prefer to meet virtually with their attorneys. In the past few years, we have seen both in-person and virtual pro bono opportunities being offered.

At the conference, attendees expressed mixed reviews from pro bono volunteers about their preferences toward virtual versus in-person pro bono opportunities. Some feel that in-person opportunities are more appealing to attorneys, because it brings a sense of community and provides a social aspect to the work; while others feel that remote opportunities allow more pro bono volunteers to participate from across different regions and offices. 

Providing a range of opportunities, both in-person and virtual, is often the best way to cater to the variety of volunteers’ preferences. However, it is important to note that depending on the nature of the project a certain project may not be suitable for a virtual platform, whereas other projects, such as the Wills and Estates Signature Project discussed in “A Blueprint for Addressing Legal Deserts,” very successfully relied on remote legal assistance to reach clients in rural Georgia counties. So, when choosing between a virtual or in-person project, make sure that all parties are comfortable with the format. 

Mentorship is an essential way to maintain a pro bono program driven by passionate leaders. Discussion of best practices for increasing engagement is ever-present among pro bono leaders.  Throughout the conference, the topic of mentorship within programs was raised many times. Mentorship programs are a great way for a new generation of pro bono leaders to be prepared to take over once their senior pro bono champions retire or move on from the program. 

Cheryl Naja, Director of Pro Bono and Community Engagement at Alston & Bird, Tali Albukerk, National Administrator for Free Legal Answers, and Matt Ellis, Chief Counsel – Commercial & Pro Bono at Koch Industries discussed in their session, “Those Were the Best Days of My Summer,” the importance of involving summer associates and interns in pro bono. Beginning pro bono mentorship early in a law student’s career exposes them to the pro bono world and can begin to shape a future pro bono leader.  

Pro bono collaborations are effective in creating manageable and bite-sized pro bono projects for attorneys and legal professionals. Sessions like “Remote & Bite-Size Immigration Pro Bono” explored how clinics and bite-sized opportunities remain an effective way to engage a large group of volunteers, and serve multiple clients. Especially in this post-covid world, attorneys are feeling busier than ever, and often cannot commit to lengthy pro bono representation projects. Projects that require volunteers to be available for only a few hours or a day can be a great way for volunteers who want to do pro bono, but don’t necessarily have much time, to get involved. 

Partnerships between law firms, in-house departments, and legal services organizations are one of the most effective ways to create these bite-sized opportunities. Each group is able to bring something different to the table to produce a successful project. And, as the session on “Deepening the Impact of In-House Pro Bono Programs” explored, these bite-sized projects can also lay the foundation for deeper and longer-term partnerships as well, as volunteers become more comfortable with and passionate about their work.

These were just a few of many highlights from the 2023 PBI Annual Conference. What would you like to learn about at the 2024 PBI Annual Conference on March 6-8, 2024 in Washington, DC?  Let us know at

March 28, 2023

Housing Justice

As part of the Challenge Signatory Showcase, Corporate Pro Bono is excited to highlight The Williams Companies**, and their housing justice pro bono project. We chatted with Williams’ Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Lane Wilson, about the project and the impact that it has on tenants who are unable to afford legal representation when faced with eviction. Wilson also discussed with us the importance of having a general counsel who is involved in the department’s pro bono program.

LW: One of the many ways Williams’ employees implement our Responsible Stewards Core Value is to support the communities where we work and live. We have lawyers, paralegals, and staff across the country, and they all provide some form of pro bono service because our core values are important to everyone at Williams. In Tulsa, the we collaborate with the Tulsa County Bar Association’s Forcible Entry and Detainer (FED) Pro-Bono Program, which involves the Court Assistance Project (CAP). We also provide services to Legal Aid of Oklahoma.

The impact of evictions for tenants can be long-lasting and devasting for families and communities.

Under CAP, our attorneys represent tenants who face evictions, and in advocating for a tenant, they may negotiate an agreement to vacate the subject property on a time fram that works for the tenant, address rent payments, or keep the tenant in the property. Williams attorneys and paralegals assist Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma in providing basic life planning documents such as Transfer on Death deeds and living wills to those who cannot afford an attorney. Finally, our attorneys assist with a University of Tulsa legal clinic that provides basic transactional legal services to underrepresented areas of Tulsa. We have 36 attorneys, 19 of them, laong with 7 paralegals, are in our Tulsa office and virtually all participate in one or more of these programs.

Why this is a rewarding project for the volunteers and clients? 

LW: Access to the legal system is important for everyone, and the gratification that comes from helping a pro bono client is incredibly rewarding. Here are a few quotes from our team members: 

Kim Roy, Senior Counsel – “Helping those in need has always fed my soul, but as lawyers we have a unique skill to contribute to society. Lawyers are trained to be advocates and advisors for society. Our skill and services should not be accessible to only those that can afford us. Work that may be simple to us (end of life documents, eviction proceedings, etc.) are scary and overwhelming challenges for most people. Each and every pro bono client I have had the pleasure of assisting has been grateful and appreciative of my guidance as I helped them navigate a challenging part of their lives.

Ramon Watkins, Senior Counsel – “I believe that everyone who needs legal assistance should receive it regardless of their financial ability. Knowing that I’ve educated someone about the law and provided legal services that otherwise would not have been available to that person is gratifying, rewarding, and humbling.”Christian Chicas, Paralegal Senior – “Williams allows us to make a positive impact in our community by allowing us to participate in pro bono work with LASO. I believe it is important to take the time to give back to your local community even if it is by a small act of writing up a Will. We are not only helping individuals who need our assistance but helping their family and friends too.”

Cheryl Mahon, Paralegal Senior – “I love helping people and working with the LASO clients is very rewarding as they are very appreciative of everything we do, and it helps make their lives easier for themselves and their families. It is nice to see how appreciative they are for the little things we do.”

Annotation of feedback from a LASO client that Tami Anderson Velarde, Senior Counsel, assisted: “I just can’t thank you enough for the expertise that made my end of life preparation easy for me. So thorough.”

What impact has this project had?

LW: As a former judge, and having represented clients in the CAP Program, I can say from my own experience that the program provides access to justice and hope to tenants. Being faced with an eviction or being evicted could lead to the possible loss of possessions, jobs, change in schools for the children, etc., which impacts families mentally, emotionally, and financially. Providing life planning documents allows older low-income individuals to have the peace of mind that their wishes regarding end-of-life care and the disposition of their assets will be carried out. Also, the work with The University of Tulsa clinic allows under-represented groups to obtain the legal services necessary to start a business or expand an existing business in a way that increases the likelihood of success.

What is the most challenging part of this pro bono work and how do you overcome it? 

LW: One challenging part of our pro bono work is that many attorneys are not comfortable practicing in areas that are outside their specific areas of expertise. However, the services we provide are basic ones that do not require a steep learning curve and provide opportunities for professional development.

What advice would you give other departments that want to do similar pro bono work?

LW: Attorneys and companies hold a privileged position in society and should take a leadership role in our communities, not to mention  the ethical obligation we have as lawyers to serve our communities. Pro bono work is the right thing to do. In addition, giving back to the community in the form of pro bono work provides opportunities for teamwork within a department, collaboration efforts outside the company, and a diversity of experiences, which support professional and emotional success. These efforts can also positively impact the bottom line. I encourage other departments to take advantage of pro bono opportunities and to use them to build thriving teams that benefit the company and its employees while making a difference in communities.

Why is it important to have general counsels actively involved in their department’s pro bono program?

LW: The General Counsel sets the tone and must lead by example. A grassroots effort like a pro bono program will not work without buy-in from all leaders in the department, including the GC. Everyone must be involved, and they must know and feel that they are doing this meaningful work as a team.

How do you think other departments can best encourage their general counsels to be engaged in pro bono?

LW: Have their GCs call me! If they won’t do that, get the program started and invite the GC to participate; hopefully she or he will see the benefits, get involved, and make it a full team effort that benefits everyone involved.

Check out more of our Challenge Signatories great work on the PBI Signatory Showcase.

**denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory 

March 28, 2023

Making Voting Rights Meaningful for People with Disabilities 

By PBI Intern Nathan Price as edited by PBI staff

Participating in the election of public officials is a cornerstone of American Democracy and a core process for helping America ensure political freedom. According to recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 73 percent of U.S. citizens without disabilities reported being registered to vote and 67.5 percent of U.S. citizens without disabilities reported voting in the 2020 presidential elections, the highest turnout in the current century.[1] In contrast, only 70 percent of U.S. citizens with any disability[2] reported being registered, and just 61.8 percent of citizens with any disability reported voting — amounting to a 4 percent deficit in registration and 8.4 percent deficit in voting for citizens with any disability.  These statistics make clear that our current voting system and practices present barriers to individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities, and that these barriers are compounding — the first hurdle is registering, and those that overcome that impediment face an even higher barrier to casting a ballot. Moreover, the obstacles to voting are manifestly much higher for certain categories of disabilities. Only 60.4 percent of citizens with ambulatory disabilities and just 49.4 percent of citizens with disabilities impacting self-care reported voting in the 2020 presidential elections. These numbers are 10.5 percent and 26.8 percent lower respectively than the comparable statistics for citizens without a disability. While over the course of history America has made great strides in providing equitable access to the ballot, one group that remains largely overlooked when it comes to voting rights and access is people with disabilities.

People with disabilities face many unique challenges when exercising their right to vote. These challenges include difficulties with filling out forms, getting to and navigating around polling places, or completing other tasks required to register or vote. You might expect that in the modern era of electronic aids, the situation for voters with disabilities would be improving. However, the American Civil Liberties Union reports that, in 2021 alone, more than 400 anti-voter measures were introduced by states across the country, many of which are disproportionately burdensome to voters with disabilities.[3] In some cases, states have taken measures to afford more equitable access to voting (e.g., allowing third-party assistance with the voting process), only to have these measures withdrawn under the rationale that they invite voter fraud. For example, during the 2020 election, voters in Wisconsin were permitted to have proxies deposit their ballots in widely-distributed, official, drop-off boxes. However, after the legitimacy of the ballot collection was questioned, that voting method was banned, inequitably affecting voters with disabilities. 

While some states have introduced barriers making it harder for people with disabilities to register to vote and participate in the political process, key federal laws do grant them some legal protection. For example, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 requires polling places across the United States to be physically accessible to people with disabilities for federal elections. If there is no accessible location available to serve as a polling place, an alternate means of accessible voting must be set up. In addition, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 sought to increase the historically low registration rates of persons with disabilities by requiring all offices that provide public assistance or state-funded programs that primarily serve persons with disabilities to also provide the opportunity to register to vote in federal elections.[4]  Further, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires jurisdictions responsible for conducting federal elections to provide at least one accessible voting system for persons with disabilities at each polling place in federal elections.  

Some states have gone well beyond the provisions of federal law to facilitate voting by individuals with disabilities. California is a leader in this area, boasting a system that allows individuals to both register to vote and download (and mark) their ballots completely online. Using this system, Californians with disabilities can complete the critical portions of the voting process independently using technology found in many American homes, such as a computer, smartphone, or tablet. Once a ballot has been marked digitally, it is printed, placed in an envelope, and dropped off at an official voting station.  Importantly, anyone can drop it off at the polling place, as long as the voter’s signature appears on the outside of the ballot envelope. 

Other jurisdictions also have been working to increase accessibility that can benefit voters with disabilities. Seattle passed a provision that allows voters to vote via their smartphone, and West Virginia was the first state to allow voters with physical disabilities to vote via their smartphone. 

In order for electronic voting and accessibility reforms to progress further throughout the entire nation, it is important for groups representing those with disabilities have a seat at the table, and to be adequately represented, on matters of design and implementation. Among other things, better training of election officials is needed to assure that equitable laws are implemented in a manner that achieves their intent. 

Here are a few of examples of lawyers recently taking action to ensure equitable voting access for people with disabilities, in addition to other impacted communities:

  • Davis Wright Tremaine†* and WilmerHale†* partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center to oppose Georgia law S.B. 202, which added a voter ID requirement for mail ballots, limited drop-off ballot boxes, shortened the time period for requesting a mailed ballot, and made it illegal to provide water and food to people standing in line to vote – measures that disproportionately impact the ability of persons with disabilities to vote.
  • Perkins Coie†*, along with Krevolin & Horst, is opposing the same bill in court, on behalf of The New Georgia Project, alleging violations of the U.S. Constitution and Federal voting law.
  • Reed Smith†* is co-counseling with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and The Arc, a nonprofit serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to challenge Texas’s S.B. 1, which bans 24-hour early and drive-through voting and criminalizes sending mail-in ballot applications to voters absent an express request.
  • Jenner & Block* is fighting the same Texas law, working with the Texas Civil Rights Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other civil rights organizations.
  • Law Forward is a Wisconsin-based nonprofit championing voting rights. They filed a lawsuit on behalf of voters with disabilities in Wisconsin and restored the right of voters to have third parties drop off their ballot for them.
  • Sheppard Mullin is a law firm with a long history of advocating for people with disabilities. In 2021, the firm helped secure a commitment from Virginia voting officials to permanently provide absentee ballots that can be marked electronically to voters with visual impairments.

Many pro bono opportunities are available for organizations to help make further progress in this area. The following is a small sample of organizations seeking legal assistance with voting rights matters impacting people with disability:

  • The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law consists of eight independently funded and governed Lawyers’ Committees operating in Boston; Chicago; Denver; the District of Columbia; Jackson, Mississippi; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; and San Francisco.  The organizations have many pro bono opportunities to aid on civil rights matters. This includes defending and expanding the voting rights of people with disabilities through integrated litigation programs, voter protection advocacy, and education. 
  • University Legal Services is a private, nonprofit, community-based organization that provides many services and acts as the Protection and Advocacy agency for the District of Columbia through its Disability Rights DC (DRDC) unit. DRDC’s mission is to advocate for the human, civil, and legal rights of people with disabilities in the District of Columbia. Its activities include fighting for accessible polling places.
  • Disability Rights Washington is a private nonprofit organization that protects the rights of people with disabilities across the state of Washington. Their mission is to advance the dignity, equality, and self-determination of people with disabilities, including promoting legal rights. 
  • Arizona Center for Disability Law is a nonprofit law firm that assists people in Arizona with disabilities to promote and access their rights. They provide various free legal services, including protection and advocacy for voting access.
  • Disability Law Center of VA (dLCV) is the designated Protection and Advocacy organization of Virginia the Help America Vote Act of 2002 advocating for the rights of Virginia voters with disabilities.  The organization offers lawyer volunteers opportunities to take on pro bono cases and advocacy matters, while earning CLE hours in some cases.
  • The National Federation of the Blind is a nonprofit organization whose legal program goals include: “create[ing] systemic change in how … government agencies address accessibility and equality for the blind”. Based in Maryland, it has pushed for reform through the courts in more than 10 states, including Virginia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. It is seeking to build a network of advocates and legal experts.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau statistics data, there are roughly 28.7 million U.S. citizens with a disability. Consequently, if the U.S. voting system were fully equitable, citizens with disabilities would have cast more than an additional 1.6 million votes in the 2020 election. Ensuring that individuals with disabilities have equitable access to voting would affect not just those with disabilities, but all Americans in ensuring greater representation for all. Please consider taking on pro bono matters supporting voting reform for Americans with disabilities. Your efforts can help make the country stronger and bolster the nation’s status as a model of democratic society. 

†denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member
*denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory  

[1] See Table 6 at

[2] Generally, the April 2021 U.S. Census Bureau release on Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2020  reflects registration and voting information reported to the Bureau by census respondents for individuals with any of the six following impairments:  hearing difficulty, vision difficulty, cognitive difficulty, ambulatory difficulty, self-care difficulty, and independent living difficulty compared with respondents not reporting any of these difficulties. 

[3] See


February 15, 2023

Bringing Legal Resources to Legal Deserts

Legal deserts are regions in the United States that have no or few attorneys. These regions are generally rural communities. In recent years, the legal community has analyzed the characteristics and consequences of legal deserts, and their impact on access to justice. For example, in 2018, a Harvard Law & Policy Review article surveyed parts of California, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, and South Dakota, called for increased data collection about legal deserts, and recommended creative approaches to provide legal resources to residents in those communities. The study found common challenges across these diverse states with regard to addressing legal deserts.

These challenges were exacerbated by the pandemic, as legal resources were stretched thin due to the increased need for lawyers to help on issues such as unemployment, benefits, and evictions. In 2021, the Legal Services Corporation, the largest funder of civil legal aid in the United States, launched a task force to address access to justice in legal deserts, through strategies such as legal education for residents, legislative change, and pro bono legal assistance. 

This Rural Justice Task Force was charged with identifying problems and solutions to access to justice challenges in these rural communities. Strategies such as creating self-help centers and holding clinics to better equip individuals to represent themselves pro se can be impactful, though they are not a substitute for legal advice from an attorney. Other approaches include creating “legal oases” through funding that encourages young lawyers to establish their practice in small towns and rural communities, and increasing remote representation, although the “digital divide”– some rural communities lack access to broadband internet–can be a further roadblock.

Georgia is a case study for legal deserts. Seventy percent of the attorneys in Georgia are located in four counties in the metro Atlanta area, while the other 155 counties have far fewer lawyers – or no lawyers at all. The Georgia State University College of Law’s Center for Access to Justice has been working on solutions to make the legal system accessible to more Georgians, an essential goal as challenges abounded during the pandemic. The Center mapped the lack of attorneys in many counties in Georgia, in particular noting the impact on individuals facing evictions who are unrepresented.  For example, tenants who were unaware of the federal eviction moratorium and lacked legal representation were more vulnerable to eviction.

The Georgia Legal Services Program is one organization working to ensure access to the justice system for low-income Georgians. Pro bono is one ingredient in their recipe for successfully increasing access to justice.  Pro bono attorneys can receive training and provide legal assistance to low-income clients in rural areas in a variety of civil legal matters. Come join us to learn about innovative solutions to legal deserts at the 2023 Pro Bono Institute Annual Conference. The session, “A Blueprint for Addressing Legal Deserts,” will focus on a case study highlighting Georgia Legal Services Program’s Wills and Estates Signature Project, which partners with large law firms and corporate legal departments to provide remote legal assistance in rural Georgia counties. Learn more about the PBI Annual Conference and register here.

February 14, 2023

Dobbs Decision Galvanizes Reproductive Rights Pro Bono Work

by Hitha Bollu, PBI Intern

In June 2022, the Supreme Court held in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion, overturning longstanding precedent in Roe v. Wade—and mobilizing interest in pro bono opportunities among many lawyers who support reproductive rights. Even before the decision came down, many major law firms anticipated that the right to abortion was in jeopardy, and formed an alliance to work to protect reproductive rights. 

As predicted, the overturning of Roe v. Wade allowed many states to enforce laws banning and restricting abortion bans. According to the Brennan Center for Justice and the Center for Reproductive Rights, as of February 1, 2023, litigants have challenged abortion prohibitions and restrictions in three dozen cases across 21 states since Dobbs.  Last July, the Justice Department announced a task force to “monitor and evaluate” state and local legislation which seeks to limit abortion, limit use of FDA-approved medications for abortion, or impose harsh penalties on abortion providers.  through the process of harsh penalties. Additionally, the Biden Administration issued an executive order to protect access to medication abortion and emergency contraception, as well as educate about these options to safeguard reproductive health.

These changes to the reproductive rights legal landscape have created an opportunity for many law firms to engage in reproductive rights pro bono work challenging abortion bans and restrictions.  To list just a few examples: 

  • Jenner & Block* teamed with the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, Center for Reproductive Rights, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America to successfully seek an order blocking Florida’s 15-week ban on abortion before it went into effect on July 1; 
  • Dechert* partnered with the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America to file a challenge to the total abortion bans in Oklahoma
  • WilmerHale* partnered with American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Ohio, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, to file a challenge to an abortion ban in Ohio;
  • Arnold & Porter* collaborated with the Center for Reproductive Rights to litigate in support of the Kansas’s Supreme Court’s decision to preserve abortion rights, partnered with the ACLU to preserve the right to medication abortions; and 
  • Cooley* partnered with ACLU of West Virginia and Mountain State Justice to file a challenge to the near-total ban on abortion in West Virginia.  These are just some of the many cases in which law firms are engaged in reproductive rights pro bono. 

In addition to filing direct legal challenges to abortion bans, there are other ways to get involved in reproductive rights pro bono, like hotline support and research.  For examples, in the wake of Dobbs, the Attorney General of New York, Letitia James, announced a pro bono task force of two dozen law firms and eight pro-choice organizations to create a pro bono reproductive task force, such as a hotline dedicated to offering free abortion information to interested individuals. The hotline is available to individuals in and out of state who seek legal guidance about obtaining an abortion, as well as for doctors and abortion providers. Pro bono attorneys will receive training to staff the hotline. There is also much need for pro bono research. For example, firms like Hogan Lovells* have supported reproductive rights by researching “trigger laws” that banned abortion once Roe v. Wade was overturned.  

As one of the biggest pro bono non-profits dedicated to protecting contraceptive freedom, the Center for Reproductive Rights has maintained and ensured 30 years of equitable access to reproductive rights. Their work includes advocacy services to destigmatize access to contraceptives; international reproductive rights campaigns in Africa and Latin Americato educate adolescents about available reproductive services; advocating to support maternal health; and protecting and advancing abortion rights.  The Center for Reproductive Rights works with more than 800 pro bono attorneys in more than 80 countries, and is currently working with pro bono attorneys to overturn abortion bans and restrictions; to champion for telemedicine avenues of abortion; to spread information about reproductive assistance; and to advocate for reproductive rights.  

If you are interested in learning more about opportunities to get involved in reproductive right pro bono, you’re in luck! The Center for Reproductive Rights has organized a session at the 2023 Pro Bono Institute Annual Conference, entitled “Post-Roe: Reproductive Rights & Pro Bono.” At this program attorneys from the Center for Reproductive Rights, alongside pro bono attorneys from Manatt, Phelps & Phillps* and Arnold & Porter, will speak about pro bono efforts to better protect and provide legal representation in support of reproductive rights.  Learn more about the PBI Annual Conference, on February 22-24, in Washington, DC and register here.

*denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

December 13, 2022

Attorney Fee Awards in Pro Bono Cases

By Ciera Cockrell, PBI Intern

Pro bono work is essential to help meet the vast civil legal needs of under-resourced populations. While the primary goal of most attorneys engaged in pro bono litigation is certainly not to secure personal monetary gain, fee-shifting statutory provisions allow for monetary remuneration in the form of attorney fee awards. Securing these awards aids in encouraging law firms and other organizations to continue litigating public interest issues.

Trends show that many large firms who prevail in their pro bono cases and secure attorney fee awards donate part or all of that award to a non-profit organization involved in impacting a particular area of public interest. Some firms, like Latham & Watkins LLP, have created a charitable fund based on attorney fee awards they have received in pro bono cases. The donation of attorney fee awards allows non-profit organizations like the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights to continue funding and supporting public interest work.

But, some attorneys are facing difficulty securing appropriate attorney fee awards due to the pro bono nature of their legal representation.

In a U.S. District Court case for the Northern District of California, two inmates brought suit against the state to challenge a denial of their constitutional right.[1] One plaintiff had pro bono representation from a large law firm, and the other had pro bono representation from a smaller law firm. Both plaintiffs were successful on their constitutional claim. Under the California Code of Civil Procedure, both plaintiffs satisfied the requirements of the fee-shifting provision. Both counsels properly requested attorney fees calculated based on the lodestar method. The district court judge awarded the requested fees to the plaintiff represented by the smaller firm, but denied the requested fees to the plaintiff represented by the large firm.

The only distinctions between the two plaintiffs were: 1) the sizes of the law firms providing their individual pro bono counsel; and 2) the smaller firm’s engagement was structured as a contingency, while the larger firm’s engagement was structured as a pro bono matter that allowed for recovery of attorney fees if so ordered by the court. In denying the requested fees for this plaintiff aided by the larger firm, the judge reasoned that due to the large size and good reputation of the firm representing him, providing these free services would not “jeopardize the profitability of the firm.”[2] The plaintiff appealed the denial of attorney fees.

The Law Firm Pro Bono Project® was involved in preparing an amicus brief that challenged the denial of the fee award in concert with an appeal of the district court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.[3] The brief highlighted that the judge’s decision was an abuse of discretion that contrasted with California case law. Pro bono status is not one of the factors to be considered in awarding fees, and therefore cannot be used to justify the reduction or denial of those fees.

Fortunately, the Ninth Circuit Court agreed with the plaintiff and the amici curiae, reversed and remanded the proceedings to the district court to award reasonable attorney fees.

Decisions denying attorney fee awards based on the pro bono nature of a case set a harmful precedent that public interest litigation is less valued than private interest and must largely rely on charitable work.

This erroneous reliance on pro bono status to justify the denial or reduction of requested attorney fees is unhappily not an isolated occurrence. Across several jurisdictions, pro bono attorneys have appealed decisions that denied them attorney fees because of their pro bono status.

case from the Court of Appeals of Michigan, for example, shows how the pro bono nature of the case distracted the judge such that he calculated the actual fees incurred instead of following the established rule of calculating reasonable fees for the services provided.[4] The court reasoned that since the legal representation was free, the plaintiffs did not incur any actual costs in paying attorney fees. The judge therefore denied the requested fee because no fees were actually paid.

The issue of actual fees, however, was not the issue before the court. Rather, the court should have calculated reasonable fees. Under the relevant state statutory provision, if the requested fees align with the reasonable hours and rates of similar legal services in the area, the judge must award the fee.[5] This holds true even in pro bono cases where no actual costs were incurred by the client.

This mistake of calculating actual fees instead of reasonable fees in pro bono cases has shown up across several jurisdictions in the last two years.

Mistakes like these and others that deny pro bono attorneys reasonable fees are potentially detrimental to the encouragement of law firms to continue engaging in public interest litigation. Realistically, not every firm, corporation, or organization has means to absorb the cost of litigation. Those that can often donate such awards to legal services organizations that are resource constrained.  Thus, denying fee awards in pro bono cases generally affects the volume and quality of pro bono services that can be rendered to those in need.

The Law Firm Pro Bono Project® encourages law firms participating in pro bono litigation to request reasonable attorney fees when applicable. Once the award is secured, PBI further encourages firms to donate at least part of that award to a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing a public interest.

For law firms seeking to secure attorney fee awards, be sure to familiarize yourself with how attorney fees are calculated in the relevant jurisdiction and under the relevant statute. If possible and applicable, consider including the following in your motion:

  1. Language that captures the distinction between calculating actual fees and calculating reasonable fees.
  2. Relevant case law that demonstrates that pro bono status is not a factor to be considered in awarding reasonable attorney fees.
  3. A non-profit organization or cause that your firm will be donating part or all of the award to. Courts tend to look favorably upon these types of donations.

For more information, contact Law Firm Pro Bono Project at

[1] Cisneros v. Vangilder, No. 21-15363, No. 21-15405, 2022 WL 1500805, at *1 (9th Cir. May 12, 2022).

[2] Id. at *2.

[3] Brief for Pro Bono Inst. et al. as Amici Curiae Supporting Appellant, Cisneros v. Vangilder, No. 21-15363, No. 21-15405, 2022 WL 1500805, at *1 (9th Cir. May 12, 2022).

[4] Woodman v. Dep’t of Corr., No. 353164, No. 353165, 2021 WL 2619705, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. June 24, 2001).

[5] Id. at *4.

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

    Older Posts >