Should A Broke Attorney Still Provide Pro Bono Work?

Many attorneys who are only starting to build a new practice or find one to call home will wonder how pro bono work can possibly be added to the daily routine. After all, why should a struggling attorney waste time helping someone else? Because that’s what it’s all about, most people would answer! When you’re struggling yourself, you understand how much a sense of community can help. It’s about providing support to those in need, knowing that they will probably help you out when you need them in turn.

There are a few arguments why, yes, broke attorneys should still provide pro bono work — with a few obvious exceptions. First, pro bono work can grant struggling attorneys more notoriety. If you’re struggling to acquire new clients, then any notoriety is a good thing. Second, pro bono work can provide you with the right motivation to help yourself out too. Maybe you just need the right inspiration to find that creative spark, so to speak.

When might it not make sense for you to avoid pro bono work when you’re struggling to pay the bills yourself? Simply, when your time would be better spent working on paying cases — then that’s what you should be doing. But we’re only human. It can be difficult to put every waking moment into turning a failing practice into a successful one. A break from business as usual might be the best option.

What should you keep in mind when doing pro bono work when you can’t pay the bills? Keep an eye on your payments. When you’ve received a notice from a creditors’ rights attorney, it might be time to take a step back and reassess how you can juggle tasks — even if it means neglecting pro bono cases for the time being.

Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor was quoted several years ago as saying she believes in “forced labor” when it comes to pro bono work, and that all lawyers should be required to provide this service at least some of the time.

Critics were quick to point out that the burden of such a “tax” would fall to younger lawyers who had yet to find their footing in the world of law. Would it make more sense to force pro bono on lawyers who are already well-off? It’s a discussion that some insiders have been having for years, and everyone’s opinion is different. 

For now, most lawyers have the option of providing free services or not — regardless of how strenuous those services are when provided. For example, simply taking calls from would-be clients can be considered pro bono in the right context. And how difficult is it to provide those free consultations, really?

Although we don’t support forced labor, we do believe lawyers have an obligation to the poor — even if those lawyers fall in the same demographic. It doesn’t always cost money to give away time to those in need.