How Do You Handle Requests for Pro Bono Help?

How do you handle calls at your law office from people who ask if you would do legal work for them pro bono?

All of us, no matter what our job is, should use our skills to help those who are in dire need our particular kind of help but who cannot afford it. And decent people in various fields do just that.

I offer pro bono help (it’s my moral obligation, even if it weren’t a professional obligation), but frankly I do so on my own terms. If I ever offered to help somebody with a highly contentious divorce on a pro bono basis (I am a divorce and family law attorney), I might never see the end of that case. It could prove ruinous to me financially and in my personal life. Now I don’t give people that long explanation when they ask for pro bono services from me, but that is often what is behind declining to provide pro bono help.

There are two professions that are more “popular” when it comes to pro bono: medicine and law.

The problem with being so popular is that medical care and legal services aren’t as simple to provide on a pro bono basis as is a hot meal or a simple appliance repair (and please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not suggesting that if you’re a small appliance repairman that your free services are any less valuable than those of a doctor or lawyer, but the fact of the matter is that if you can help somebody in 15 minutes or so, it makes it easier to provide that help as opposed to an operation that could take a doctor hours and a staff of half a dozen people to perform or a law suit that could last for months or years).

Sure, doctors may be able to provide great relief with a tablet or two. Lawyers may be able to answer a single legal question or write a one-page demand letter.

But when people need a surgical procedure or legal representation costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s not a matter of mere inconvenience to provide service free of charge at that level, it can become impossible to provide pro bono services at that level for all but the wealthiest of doctors and lawyers.

How Pro Bono Works – and Why

More often than you might think lawyers get calls from people who believe that they qualify for free legal services because they have a legal problem that they cannot afford (or feel that that they cannot afford) to pay a lawyer to help them with. That’s not how it works.

For example, in my case (I am a divorce lawyer), many times people want to divorce not because their life or safety is in danger but simply because they are miserable in their marriages. If people who are miserable in their marriages also happened to be poor, that does not mean that they are entitled to pro bono legal services (frankly, few, if any, are “entitled” to pro bono help or it ceases to be pro bono help, but I digress). Pro bono is typically restricted to situations where without the help your life or safety or your fundamental human rights will be irreparably harmed or destroyed. It’s why we run soup kitchens for the starving, but don’t give free cups—or even discounted cups—of coffee if you’re a dollar short.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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