Tips and Considerations for Managing Pro Bono Work

  • January 31, 2022
  • Tom Spraggs

Tips and Considerations for Managing Pro Bono Work

The phrase “pro bono” often brings up a plethora of emotions for lawyers and the public alike. Sometimes, pro bono is conflated with “free.” Pro bono is much more than free. A common definition of pro bono is working for “the public good.” Many lawyers find tremendous satisfaction and purpose in solving problems on a pro bono basis, which can be provided at no cost and reduced rates.

Lawyers who work on a pro bono basis most often do so because the people they are helping would not otherwise be able to receive help due to the cost of market-priced legal services.

The passion and sense of purpose that drives pro bono work is often personally rewarding and highly satisfying. Understanding that someone who was previously left with undesirable options can now access due process and justice through pro bono work is profound. Helping those in need of assistance improves the standing of lawyers in society and strengthens public awareness and engagement of the justice system processes and the rule of law. It is all good stuff!

The current reality is there is much more demand for pro bono services than lawyers can supply. Those doing pro bono work will likely find a significant, and probably insatiable, demand for their time. These demands can be hard to balance and manage. Employing principled strategies to govern your pro bono efforts will help you to continue to provide the purposeful pro bono work without getting overwhelmed by it.

Set Pro Bono Goals with Time Keeping

The conventional business wisdom that you can only manage what you measure is essential for setting up how you will manage your time. Find ratios that work for you. The frequently cited statistic that lawyers often work in excess of eight hours a day but bill less than three is an example of accidental pro bono.

Work Your Pro Bono in a Clinic

One of the potential frustrations of a pro bono retainer is that without a defined scope, you may find a lot more could be involved than intended. This can be a significant deterrent for lawyers wanting to find predictability in their pro bono offerings.

Clinic work can be highly efficient particularly given the clinic coordinator will take care of scheduling and the individuals participating in the clinic have clear expectations about the lawyer’s role. The ability to limit the retainer to short issue spotting can also be a great way for people seeking help to get clarity.

Clinic work is an excellent environment to practice interviewing and client communication skills in addition to increasing competency in areas of law you may be considering as a marketable practice area. Some clinics are now also offering virtual clinic work that can allow busy lawyers even more efficiency for their pro bono services.

Bill and Discount All of Your Pro Bono Time

This strategy is a healthy consequence of the strategy of tracking and reviewing your time. One of the benefits of doing pro bono work, billing at a full market rate and then discounting 100% is that you build the discipline of keeping time and an appreciation of how you choose to spend it. Billing then discounting pro bono work also helps communicate the value of the work you provide.

Create Process Boundaries and Policies for Your Pro Bono Work

Most lawyers have experiences with someone who, when learning you are a lawyer, want to know “one thing” or they have a “quick question.” All of that is almost always a request for free legal advice. Protect yourself, the integrity of your considerations and advice by creating a customer-friendly policy.

Much like a medical doctor who may get asked for “informal” medical advice, patients are best served with a proper intake and examination process. Have a process that prevents you from giving “off the cuff” advice until you have done a conflict check, opened a file and determined whether it will be billable or pro bono, without exception. You will find it gets easier every time you establish those boundaries and the people asking you for free advice will value your eventual advice more.

The best strategy of all is to continue doing what works for you and change what is not or could be improved. May you continue working in the public good.


Tom Spraggs is the owner of Spraggs Law and a Bencher of the Law Society of British Columbia. 

This article was originally published on BarTalk, which is produced by the British Columbia Branch of the Canadian Bar Association.