North American Pro Bono Organizations Experience Unprecedented Budget Cuts

Ontario’s budget for legal aid was slashed by 30 percent in 2019, which amounted to about $60-70 million. More recently, the legal aid budget was squeezed even more due to the coronavirus pandemic. Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) provides pro bono services and funds private lawyers in order to reduce impacts on marginalized minority individuals and populations when they find themselves in court without representation.

LAO Executive Director Jack de Klerk said, “The elimination of positions [within legal clinics] will be inevitable.”

LAO provided a number of overtime hours for associates over the past year as a result of the pandemic — a reality that has exhausted its budget even faster. Volunteer criminal law attorneys are in short supply, but the demand for them has only increased.

Many politicians disproportionately place blame on individual lawyers and law firms for failing to meet the rising calls to action, but fail to take responsibility for their own program cuts or reducing budgets across the board.

Professor Trevor Farrow of Osgoode Hall Law School explains, “Having access to justice primarily means having available options to prevent, address problems…This requires more than traditional courts and lawyers.”

Farrow believes the burden of action therefore falls to judges and legislators too. 

Pro bono legal aid in the United States hasn’t fared much better over the past few years, which is mostly as a result of former President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, which targeted equal opportunity justice organizations. 

The federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) responded to those proposals with a pleading letter: “For over four decades, the LSC has provided essential financial support for nonprofit legal aid programs throughout the nation, which serve close to two million low-income individuals annually. Its elimination would price law out of reach for those who need it most.”

Income inequality is the heart of the matter — and it’s a topic becoming more and more popular with left-leaning populations who wish to help the impoverished.


Fresh Call To Action For Pro Bono Attorneys

A rebranding has transformed former New York state’s Monroe County Volunteer Legal Services Project into JustCause. The organization is making a small request of Rochester attorneys: donate just one hour of pro bono work this year. Considering most legal firms benefit greatly from pro bono work — as do their attorneys and clients — this isn’t a big ask. And it’s good for the community at large, too.

Executive Director Tina Foster is hoping that the 15-employee organization has 2,000 sign ups for the year. She said, “JustCause is a different kind of organization; we want our brand to communicate that to volunteers and clients alike. Law, yes; community, yes, but there’s more. There’s passion, there’s connection, there’s compassion…this is not a spectator sport. Justice requires action.”

Foster acknowledged that the last year alone saw 2,000 volunteers, and right now the rebranded organization is trying to keep commitment to its goals leveled out. Together, those volunteers handled around 10,000 pro bono cases — a huge accomplishment.

One of the biggest practice areas in need of pro bono work is Social Security and Disability Law. That’s because these clients are generally living in poverty — especially before they receive these benefits, which are far more likely to be denied without qualified legal assistance. For more information, visit website

New York State Senator Jeremy Cooney, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, and State Supreme Court Justice Craig Doran are all on board and expect great things of JustCause.

Cooney said, “Justice is action work, and we have to remember that at this time in our country, in New York, and right here in Rochester.

The state budget will support JustCause with a $3.5 million package for legal assistance primarily for Upstate NY residents. The city is its own entity. For comparison’s sake, JustCause has a total operating budget of $1.4 million a year.

Doran said, “Who do you go to when there’s no one else to go to for justice? That’s a word we use frequently, there’s a lot of talk about justice, who do you go to? The answer to that question is the people who work with, and volunteer for, JustCause.”

JustCause made strides toward alleviating pandemic financial stress for many impoverished families by partnering with local governments. It recently launched a county program called “right to counsel,” to support tenants who were facing eviction without any legal representation. This followed renewed interest in such programs for the past two years, which reached a boiling point because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

JustCause is asking for only one hour of time per year — but most attorneys who join the program will give many more.


Lexi Ragano Wins AMA Student Marketer of the Year Award

South Elgin, Illinois native Lexi Ragano has won the AMA Student Marketer of the Year award, which will be handed out next month. She received the award as the result of the work she did alongside the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater American Marketing Association chapter, which itself won the AMA International Chapter of the Year award, which will be given at the virtual International Collegiate Conference from April 8 to April 10. 

Ragano said, “I still can’t believe it. I was humbled just to be nominated, and then overwhelmed when I won. My name may be on the award, but it reflects all the support from the chapter advisors and my co-presidents and other AMA members. Dr. Andy Dahl was such a great mentor to me as well, and Dr. Jimmy Peltier really pushed me to be the student and professional I now am.”

The college has won the AMA International Chapter of the Year award for the last ten years running. Chapter co-president Brianna Oelke said, “AMA has been a huge part of my collegiate career, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It provides so many real-life experiences that a classroom just can’t give. It also gives students many opportunities to travel and build their network while showing off their skills to future employers.”

Oelke was fortunate enough to be recruited by Dallas, Texas company PepsiCo for a sales management position.

Marketing major and chapter co-president Alec Arndt said, “We had to be at our best for the whole year. And in this year of hardship, one of our major goals was to give back to the community and all AMA members. This included pro bono work for local businesses, external competitions to provide other chapter’s opportunities to compete and earn money, and raising the most donations by any chapter for the AMA Foundation’s Giving Tuesday.”


Pro Bono Work Leads To Father’s Release From Life Sentence

Clifton Jones was convicted of killing his son CJ in 2007 after the infant died of “shaken baby syndrome,” which is considered child abuse and occurs when a child suffers whiplash as the result of frenetic shaking. This can occur in as little as five seconds and normally causes severe brain damage. Pro bono work eventually led to Jones’s release from California Soledad State Prison, where he would have likely spent the rest of his life.

The pro bono duo, Keker partner Khari Tillery and firm associate Anjali Srinivasan, were joined by Northern California Project Innocence attorney Paige Kaneb. They were presented the Pro Bono Heroes award for April 2021 after they convinced the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office that he had been convicted on misleading or incorrect information as the result of scientific data that has since changed a great deal.

Their request? Jones should be released immediately, and then resentenced based on fairer charges.  

Tillery said, “This is the highest and best use of my law degree, to represent people who have had the weight of the criminal justice system unfairly leveled against them.”

Srinivasan said, “I don’t think we can ever really deliver justice for Clifton. We’ll never be able to right that [15 years in prison]. But it feels good to at least give him a second chance.”

Many adults have been convicted of manslaughter or murder on the assumption that they physically abused their infant children — but the medical community now has a greater understand of the additional factors that can cause shaken baby syndrome to present. You can visit website if you grew up after suffering shaken baby syndrome. 

A number of these convictions have since been overturned based on new information.

Zavion Johnson was convicted of murder when his 4-month-old died in 2001 — but Tillery and Kaneb won his release in 2017. He had argued that his daughter slipped through his arms to hit her head. The prosecutors didn’t believe him. According to them, the injuries were the result of shaken baby syndrome.

After new medical research was acquired nearly two decades later, the same experts who spoke for the prosecution rescinded their previous testimony to say that the injuries could indeed have been incurred due to a fall.

Jones said that CJ’s injury was the result of a fall as well — but prosecutors didn’t believe him, either. He was convicted by a unanimous jury decision for involuntary manslaughter. The same jury was split over whether or not he committed child abuse homicide, however, but after a retrial he was found guilty for the second charge. Because of that second trial, he would not have been eligible for parole until the year 2027.

Eventually, the District Attorney acknowledged the changes in medical science and dropped the second charge. Jones was released with time served. 

Tillery said that he and Jones were able to then visit his child’s grave: “It was incredibly gut-wrenching and also very beautiful. Clifton was arrested the day after his son died. He could never properly grieve the loss of his child.”


Gibbons PC Awarded 2021 John Minor Wisdom Public Service And Professionalism Award

The John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professionalism Award goes to the United States law firms that “have made outstanding contributions to the quality of justice in their communities, ensuring that the legal system is open and available to all” and is provided by the American Bar Association (ABA). It usually goes to a firm with a high number of pro bono cases. This year’s recipient was Gibbons P.C.

Those interested can tune into the 2021 Virtual Litigation Section Annual Conference, where Gibbons P.C. will presumably accept the award.

Patrick Dunican, Chairman and Managing Director for Gibbons P.C., said, “The outstanding quality of the service Gibbons attorneys provide to clients is matched by the exceptional dedication of those same attorneys to working in the public interest and giving back to their communities.”

Dunican added, “Among the award’s main criteria is ‘commitment to disadvantaged, disenfranchised or other underrepresented individuals or groups,’ which Gibbons attorneys have displayed with remarkable skill and heart dating back to the firm’s earliest days.”

Executive Director Cathy Keenan of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice wrote on behalf of Gibbons: “Gibbons contributes significantly to the needs of the most vulnerable in our community, particularly veterans, families with special-needs children and those in criminal reentry. Gibbons attorneys donate their time and expertise at limited scope legal clinics where they counsel veterans on how to resolve outstanding suspensions and restore their driving privileges, leading to gainful employment, family reunification and productive citizenship.”

The Gibbons firm promotes pro bono legal work with two specific programs that its associates can join: the John J. Gibbons Fellowship in Public Interest and Constitutional Law, and Gibbons Cares.

CEO of IFEL Jill Johnson said, “In 2020, Gibbons P.C. dedicated 624 hours of focused, impactful legal pro bono work at a value of over $249,000 in support of the Small Businesses Need Us program.”


Why Law Firms Do Pro Bono Work For Impoverished Clients

The entire point of a career in law is helping people. Lawyers are probably one of the least trusted professions on the planet — and that’s because the highest profile lawyers are usually the least trustworthy people alive. But that’s not true of everyone else. In general, lawyers are just trying to do what they think is right for the greater good. Keeping the communities we serve in one piece is what it’s all about. And that’s one reason why pro bono work is so important.

Law associate Sonja Sahlsten said that every pro bono case can expand personal horizons and help with bigger cases she knows less about: “Through my pro bono work, I have learned the nuances of sentencing law. My first foray was into federal sentencing through my work on a clemency case. More recently, I have focused on juvenile resentencing cases under DC’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, which provides an opportunity for a sentence reduction for people who committed their crimes as juveniles, have served more than 15 years, and do not pose a danger to the community.”

And it’s about more than just learning.

Fellow associate Pejmon Pashai had a different take. It’s more about becoming more comfortable: “At first, I was apprehensive about stepping outside of my legal ‘comfort zone’ and taking point on a case that could drastically affect my client’s quality of life. Being the primary problem solver in a case is not my typical role as a junior associate. But I knew that my client was counting on me and that I had to deliver, which meant taking the frantic phone calls on a Sunday night when my client’s laundry room nearly caught fire or when her building became an unabated rat den.” 

Junior associates are typically the grunts in most law firm offices. They do the majority of the leg work, while the partners or other veteran lawyers take on the case when it ends up in court. But everyone needs to start somewhere. Pro bono work often strikes two birds with one stone: you help out someone in need for a case few others would want, and also gain valuable experience in the process. And that experience can be priceless for both lawyer and client.

Sonja added, “Pro bono has provided a lot of the big ‘firsts’ of my career. The first time I spoke in court was in a pro bono case. The first time I was entirely responsible for drafting a motion was in a pro bono case. Last month, I did the first closing argument of my career at a resentencing hearing.”

One of the practice areas that get the most pro bono requests is family law (https://www.orlandofamilyteam.com/). Many families can’t afford the price tag often associated with divorce, which means they’re more likely to be depressed or suffer from symptoms associated with financial ruin. 


Pandemic Spurs Pro Bono Service Growth In 2020

The Financial Planning Association was a major player in pro bono services in 2020, a year that led to unprecedented growth. The FPA provided legal aid to nearly 8,000 individuals in need in 2020, which represents a 7 percent increase from the preceding year. Nearly 1,000 lawyers gave away approximately 14,750 hours of pro bono time to offer financial advice and legal support to members of the community.

Many of these services were offered virtually because of the constrictions placed on the lawyers by the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in government regulations that prevented many lawyers from meeting with potential pro bono clients in person.

Unfortunately, not every pro bono case means a win in court.

Honorable mentions go to a group of law firms in Los Angeles. Last month, they filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Superior Court to request a temporary stop to eviction hearings during the pandemic. The legal basis was sound: A CDC-mandated eviction moratorium is still in place all across the country because of the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic, so the need for eviction hearings is currently moot. But the legal request was worded to request these hearings cease until COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency.

But Orange County Superior Court Judge William Claster said, “I read that, and I thought, ‘Wow, that may be years.’”

The pro bono law firms said that clients could not socially distance in courtrooms, which is unfair to those who have already been adversely affected by the economic ramifications of the virus. Many have already lost jobs, businesses, or loved ones — and now the LA Superior Court system is asking them to appear for in-person hearings, putting them at even greater risk? It seemed unfair and unlawful, but the judge disagreed.

Claster added, “How does the injunction ever end? You’re asking me to — these are my words — shut down a significant portion of the superior court system.”


Do Personal Injury Lawyers Do Pro Bono Work?

The long and short of it is “yes,” personal injury lawyers do pro bono work. This is free legal advice or support provided to clients who are exigent, and all types of lawyers provide pro bono services some of the time. However, it’s important to understand that personal injury pro bono services are extremely rare. That’s not because personal injury lawyers are stingy — it’s simply because of how they get paid. 

Personal injury lawyers are most often retained on “contingency.” This means that they get paid when you do. If your lawyer doesn’t win the case, no one gets paid. Working pro bono on a personal injury case doesn’t make sense for most personal injury lawyers for a very logical reason: if they win the case, you can almost certainly afford to pay them the typical cut of attorneys fees. But there are exceptions.

All pro bono services are provided to help out those in dire financial need, and even if someone can technically pay for those services — it doesn’t necessarily mean the person wouldn’t be better off without the money. Those who can’t afford basic necessities like rent, groceries, or gas need every penny they can get. Other lawyers see pro bono service more as a civic “duty” — like a parent taking care of their children.

Mike Burman of Burman Law said, “I take pro bono cases because I am thankful to be an American. I am grateful for my license to practice law in Kentucky and Tennessee, but most of all, I find real satisfaction in helping people who work for a living. Sometimes people who work all day (or night) cannot access the lawyer they need, or, the budget just won’t allow for legal fees.” 

We recognize Burman for his extraordinary service to the communities he represents in Kentucky in Tennessee, especially for the disabled and former veterans.

Pro bono services are often provided to the disabled, people of color, minorities, veterans, and senior citizens because all of these categories of people are more likely to have rigid finances. Personal injury happens to be one niche of law that requires helping out people who were disabled, especially in car accidents. Visit website here for more information on car accident claims.

If you cannot afford legal counsel or find pro bono services, there may be other options available to reduce the costs of attorneys fees. Legal aid is often provided for cases that revolve around family law (divorce, child custody, etc.), domestic violence, welfare, renting, or public benefits. 

To search for legal aid applications for attorneys who serve your region, go to Law Help. The site’s sponsors have been especially helpful to those affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but they also connect lawyers with victims of personal injury, criminal and civil cases. In addition, you can use the website to search for information on the type of lawyer you might need or request help by perusing the provided resources.


Pro Bono Services Grants Recognition To Tennessee Pro Bono Lawyers

The Access to Justice Commission collaborated with the Tennessee State Supreme Court to recognize the outstanding service of 17 lawyers by granting them the 2020 Attorneys for Justice award, which is given yearly in Rutherford County to inspire lawyers who reside in the state to give their time away to those in need. The award requires at least 50 hours of legal service to qualify.

Director of Access to Justice Initiative Anne-Louise Wirthlin said, “The passion and commitment that comes with doing pro bono service are what we needed in the difficult and uncertain times of 2020. The attorneys being recognized as Attorneys for Justice helped their community connect with much-needed resources. Their dedication to serving Tennesseans in need is remarkable.”

The names of the attorneys who received the award are as follows: Tracy Church, Darwin Colston, Brittany Dinaso, Chase Doscher, Amy Farrar, Ted Goodman, Mitzi Hall, Katja Hedding, rad Hornsby, Scott Kimberly, Rebecca Lashbrook, Cherie Meece, Jimmy Richardson, Monika Ridley, Stacey Terral, Enoch Wilhoite, and Sonya Smith Wright. 

The Tennessee State Supreme Court conceived the Access to Justice Commission in order to provide these services to those living in poverty. The commission also serves to increase public education and foster communication between lawyers and laymen, identify legal priorities of the state, and provide project recommendations for the state Supreme Court. 

Pro bono services have been in the spotlight because of the recent collaboration between Microsoft and Davis Wright Tremaine, which drafted supportive policies to help local journalists protect their First Amendment rights. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will address the community’s need for legal support to expand pro bono programs and off pre-publication legal review, public access to old news records, and bolster subpoena defenses. These programs help local journalism remain strong in the face of adversity.


Are Pro Bono Attorneys More Common In Big Cities like DC or NYC?

The short answer is yes. Residents of rural areas of the United States have always had trouble finding pro bono legal services. The reason is simple and easy enough to understand. Lawyers who offer pro bono services are usually doing so for a combination of reasons. Sure, they want to help out those in need…but they also want everyone else to find out about how they helped someone in need. There’s an unspoken quid pro quo involved in this “free” transaction.

And it never hurts to spread the word in big cities either.

DC personal injury attorneys represent victims of accidents that were someone else’s fault. These might occur due to another person’s negligence, they might occur because someone purposely hurt another person, or they might occur simply because an accident occurred because of a mistake. Pro bono attorneys usually help those who need it the most — including the financially exigent. 

Does that mean living in a rural area completely bars you from receiving pro bono help? No, not at all. What it does mean is that you might have to travel farther to benefit from it. And even then, the amount of legal aid you receive might depend on your pro bono lawyer’s ability or desire to travel — if indeed you require them to travel.

For example, in Washington DC there are several potential paths to pro bono legal help. One is the American Association of Retired Persons Legal Counsel For The Elderly Volunteer Lawyers Project. The other is the DC Bar Pro Bono Program. Both are designed to connect pro bono lawyers to clients who need legal help but likely cannot pay for it.

The latter group provides services for lawyers who would like to donate some of their time for pro bono work as well. For example, it hosts training sessions where counselors will learn how to approach and win these cases for their new clients. The group also helps provide pro bono legal help to nonprofits and small businesses — especially those run by immigrants, people of color, other minorities, and women.

Why are these groups only available inside the city? Primarily because that’s where the resources are located. Lawyers have an easier time meeting and networking with other lawyers when they live in a compact area where people are always in need of help. In smaller towns and rural areas, there is more competition — and it makes it harder to get a leg in the game.

However, we do feel the need to say that while there is a place for pro bono lawyers in rural communities, those with the time and money to spare are usually already set up for success. Those whose offices exist in rural areas probably already knew that their client base would be small, which means the extra services they can offer would always be limited. But hey — it never hurts to ask if a lawyer you like will offer you their services pro bono no matter where you live.