February 26, 2021

Taking On Your First Pro Bono Case

BY: Lindsay Powell

A 2019 resolution from Governor Ralph Northam’s website estimated that more than 80 percent of civil legal needs of the indigent go unmet in Virginia. It is because of this statistic that lawyers across the Commonwealth of Virginia are called on to offer a percentage of their time to pro bono work and give back. Many younger attorneys are interested in taking on pro bono work, but are not sure how to get started or worry that they are not qualified. However, with the right resources and support, young attorneys are fully equipped to serve as zealous advocates for those in need of legal services but who are unable to afford them. Here are a few tips that I have learned along the way to get started:

  1. 1. Find a program and/or pro bono law center that is important to you

    Consider why you made the decision to go to law school or a problem in your community that needs to be addressed. Taking just one case or volunteering even a few hours can make all the difference for a pro bono client. There are several programs and centers throughout the Commonwealth that allow attorneys to choose a practice area and which link attorneys to those in need in the community. Whether you are interested in family law, immigration, or a mix of practice areas, there are several opportunities to make an impact. In many cases, giving back is as simple as answering discreet questions on a temporary basis or offering free legal advice in the community for a couple of hours each month. See a list of resources below. Being a part of a program that is structured can offer the resources you need to get started, and finding the right cause can make your career much more meaningful.

  2. 2. Reach out to a mentor

    As a new attorney, having a mentor can be invaluable. Navigating a new landscape can be challenging, so if you are taking on a case in a practice area that is new to you, consider finding a mentor. Some law centers and pro bono programs offer mentors to volunteer attorneys. If you are new to a practice area, reach out to a more experienced attorney who is familiar with that area in order to have someone to go to with questions should you face any unusual challenges. A mentor can also offer time saving tips and resources that you might not have considered.

  3. 3. Learn everything you can prior to taking a case

    Ensure that you exhaust every resource prior to taking on a pro bono case in terms of practice tips. Sometimes new attorneys can accept pro bono cases in their everyday practice area. However, that is not always the case. Some pro bono programs and centers offer free continuing legal education courses in exchange for donating time or taking on one or two pro bono cases. Find a continuing legal education course in the practice area for which you intend to take pro bono cases. That way, you can stay up to date with the latest developments in the law and be prepared for common issues.

  4. 4. Be prepared for unexpected challenges

    Often, secondary challenges accompany a legal matter, so be prepared for collateral issues that might arise. You might witness conditions that you might not have seen before. You might also have to deal with a series of matters that arise as a result of a single legal issue, as with any case. Be prepared for unexpected challenges. If necessary, reach out to your mentor or a pro bono center for additional potential resources.

  5. 5. Think outside the box

    I’ve learned from many experienced attorneys that you have to think outside the box when it comes to helping your pro bono client. Consider resources outside of the legal arena that might be helpful to your client. For example, seek out non-legal resources that can assist your pro bono client as well, such as organizations that assist to reduce language barriers or financial assistance for those in need. Keep an open mind in order to make sure that you consider every channel to help your client.

  6. 6. Remember that you are doing something meaningful

    There may be days when you experience a time crunch or have to put in a few more hours than expected. However, always keep in mind that you are providing something of value by just donating your time. No matter how few cases you are able to accept throughout your career, even a few hours can make all the difference. Providing representation to another person in need enables them to receive access to justice in a way that would not otherwise be available. Always keep in mind that you are accomplishing something truly extraordinary and making an impact in someone’s life and in your community.

Pro Bono Resources Throughout the Commonwealth

About the Author

Lindsay Powell is a civil litigator in Fairfax, Virginia. She handles matters involving contracts, real estate, and landlord-tenant disputes. She serves as the Virginia State Bar Young Lawyers Conference 4th District Representative, representing Alexandria, Arlington and Falls Church. She also serves as co-chair of the organization’s Mentorship Network. She has experience in both the public and private sectors, in addition to pro bono work in Virginia and Washington, D.C. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and received her law degree from Washington and Lee University School of Law.