What is pro bono consulting and volunteering?
Pro bono publico (English: “for the public good”; usually shortened to pro bono) is a Latin phrase for professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment. The term typically refers to provision of legal services by legal professionals for people who are unable to afford them.
Pro Bono Service & the Pro Bono Honor Roll
Thank you for your interest in pro bono service and the State Bar of Michigan’s (SBM) A Lawyer Helps Pro Bono Honor Roll (Honor Roll). Pro bono service has become a well-established tradition among members of the legal profession. Many Michigan lawyers regard pro bono legal service as a personal endeavor, as well as an aspirational obligation. Many members of our society not in the legal profession also regard the provision of pro bono services as a noble contribution that is respected, appreciated, and admired.
Voluntary Pro Bono Standard
SBM’s Voluntary Pro Bono Standard (Voluntary Standard), as adopted by the Representative Assembly, is a policy of the State Bar. Active members of the State Bar are encouraged to support the direct delivery of pro bono legal services to low-income people or make financial contributions to the ATJ Fund to financially support legal aid programs that provide free civil legal assistance to low-income clients. Thankfully, each year, many Michigan attorneys do both.
Under the Voluntary Standard and other pro bono policies adopted by SBM, pro bono service is defined as legal services (as opposed to general community service), provided for free or at a reduced fee (50 percent or below the current market value for similar legal services in your community), to low-income individuals (individuals and families at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines) or to organizations providing direct services to low-income individuals.
Pro Bono Service Income Limits Based on Household Size
In Michigan, eligible pro bono clients have incomes that do not exceed 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines. The poverty guidelines are set by the federal government. For 2019, eligible pro bono clients must have incomes that do not exceed the following amounts that correspond to the number of people living in their household. See current federal poverty guidelines chart.
Distinguishing Pro Bono Service & Community Service
Qualifying pro bono legal services must involve the use of unique legal skills possessed by attorneys. Other good works for the community are regarded as “community service.” To illustrate the distinction between pro bono service and community service, consider the following examples.
1. Pro Bono Service
Counseling an indigent consumer about the terms of a rent-to-own furniture contract. (This is an example of pro bono service since the attorney is providing legal services to a low-income client).
2. Community Service
Mentoring a low-income and underprivileged teenager. (This is an example of community service since the attorney is not providing legal services).
3. Pro Bono Service
Helping a low-income client facing mortgage foreclosure. (This is an example of pro bono service since the attorney is providing legal services to a low-income client).
4. Community Service
Membership on the board of directors of a nonprofit opera company. (This is an example of community service since the majority of people served by the opera company are not low-income).
5. Pro Bono Service
Membership on the board of directors of a poverty law program. (This is an example of pro bono service since the attorney is offering services to a program that provides direct legal services to low-income individuals).
6. Community Service
Coordinating a community drive to collect used furniture for the poor. (This is an example of community service since the attorney is not providing legal services).
Pro Bono’s Value for Lawyers
Pro bono service has tremendous value for the indigent individuals and communities that are the direct beneficiaries. There are also substantial benefits for the lawyers who provide these services. New lawyers have the opportunity to gain valuable experience by handling matters that involve issues of great importance to indigent clients. In addition, veteran attorneys are often willing to play the role of mentor for new attorneys who are providing pro bono services. The knowledge acquired through these mentor relationships carries over into all aspects of a budding legal career. As they handle pro bono assignments, new lawyers are able, early in their careers, to meet and interact with judges and veteran opposing counsel who will usually respect the lawyer’s pro bono participation.
Additionally, law firms increasingly find that young and talented recruits are attracted to robust pro bono opportunities. A successful pro bono experience causes lawyers to feel that they have made a positive difference in the life of another person and also increasing the quality of their own life.
There are benefits for experienced attorneys as well. On a practical level, many attorneys settle into a specialty, and pro bono service work may bring variety to an otherwise predictable routine. In addition, a conventional career path may not have led the veteran attorney to hold employment that involves full- time advocacy of causes that first inspired the attorney to choose law as a career. Pro bono provides attorneys the opportunity to pursue ideals by representing those who are most in need.
A Lawyer Helps Program
The State Bar of Michigan’s A Lawyer Helps program celebrates lawyers who make a difference. A Lawyer Helps focuses on the legal profession’s priority of pro bono: free legal help for the poor and financial donations to the Access to Justice Fund to support civil legal aid for the poor. In addition, A Lawyer Helps also recognizes lawyers who give time to other community efforts beyond pro bono. See the A Lawyer Helps website for more information.
Thank you again for your interest in pro bono and the Honor Roll. We hope that the information provided was helpful and will assist you in understanding what counts as pro bono service in Michigan. If you have additional questions, feel free to contact SBM Pro Bono Service & Justice Initiatives Counsel Robert Mathis at firstname.lastname@example.org.