Paralegals and Pro Bono Work


Pro Bono work has been a part of the legal profession for as long as I have been a paralegal.  Attorneys on their own and through various organizations have been providing free legal services to members of the community who would otherwise not be able to afford legal representation.   The ABA under Rule 6.1 of their Model Rules of Professional Conduct set forth an ethical duty for providing these types of services.  Additionally, the ABA, under their Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Legal Assistant Services states that paralegals should be allowed to assist the attorneys in the representation of these clients.

We are all aware that the need for free legal services is growing by leaps and bounds.  With the state of the economy today, it is bound to grow even faster.  “The ABA Consortium on Legal Services and the Public, in its 1994 Legal Needs Report, states that 79% of those in low income households do not obtain the services of lawyer to handle their legal problems. ”  See How to Utilize Legal Assistants in Pro Bono Public Programs by The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Paralegals, May 1999.  Back then, and still today, the ABA agrees that the utilization of paralegals in the representation of these cases can “help extend the availability of these services.” 

Programs for the indigent are run on very tight budgets.  The paralegal’s billable rate is lower that that of the attorney.  However, the paralegal can perform many of the tasks that are presently being handled by an attorney with a much higher billable rate.  Economically speaking, it makes sense to allow paralegals to handle much of the case load.  One can hire two paralegals for the price of one attorney.  This model leaves the attorney free to represent the client in legal matters not suited for the paralegal, and saves on monetary resources for the organization to be able to represent additional clients.

What can the paralegals do?

“As defined by the ABA, a legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation , governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Ibid

In accordance with the above definition provided by the ABA, the paralegal can perform a number of tasks under the guidance of an attorney:  client intakes which can be time consuming can be handled by a volunteer paralegal, referrals to specific state agencies; collection and dissemination of various discovery issues (depending on the type of case); also depending on the type of cases some paralegals can be trained to provide direct client advocacy such as CASA.

If your firm does not have a pro bono program.  I suggest you get in contact with your supervisor and be the first to develop such a program.  They can get in touch with their local bar associations and develop a program.  However, if you are not employed at a firm that supports volunteering, there are various organizations you can contact and become involved with.  Most paralegal organizations can direct you to a program in your area:  The National Association of Legal Assistants and The National Federation of Paralegal Associations.  You can also contact The ABA Center for Pro Bono, their phone number is (312) 988-5759.

Volunteering is a way to give back to your community and, on a more selfish note, it is a way to get involved in different areas of the law which will help you figure out what areas of the practice are best suited for you.  In my opinion this is a win/win situation.