A Paralegal's Guide to Pro Bono Work

Pro bono work is often associated with lawyers; however, pro bono duties are equally important to paralegal professionals as well. The objectives and the outcome of pro bono work are the same in the case of both lawyers and paralegals, which includes exposure, altruism, networking, and experience. This then results in having a sense of accomplishment after contributed to society, an increase in exposures and connections, and potential job opportunities. Pro bono duties are ideal for paralegals regardless of whether they are just starting their career or are considering lateral opportunities.

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paralegal pro bono work

What is a Paralegal?

A paralegal, also called a legal assistant, is a legal professional who has the training, education, and/or work experience essential for discharging significant legal duties. Generally, paralegals help lawyers with preparations for trials, hearings, corporate meetings, and closings. Law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies employ the majority of paralegals.

Role of Paralegals

As mentioned above, the primary responsibility of paralegals is to help lawyers performs their roles diligently and effectively. The duties most representative of paralegals are conducting client interviews; performing legal research; investigating case facts; locating and interviewing witnesses; participating in court proceedings; writing and filing petitions; managing court correspondence and trial dockets; drafting pleadings and correspondence; attending and summarizing depositions; and attending will executions, real estate closures, and administrative or court trials and hearings.

Pro Bono Work

In law, pro bono means volunteer legal work that’s performed voluntarily without pay. In other words, an attorney could take up a legal case and not charge the client for the services discharged. Such voluntary work is offered when the client has no money to pay lawyer fees, or if the lawyer believes the person is in the right and needs to be taken out of his legal quandary.

As many may be unaware, paralegals must in fact offer pro bono work for a minimum of 24 hours. In 2016, 72 percent of lawyers provided pro bono work for 10 hours or more. Partners offered 37.2 hours of pro bono work in 2016 on an average, which is marginally higher compared to the 34.6 hours of work furnished in 2015.

Common Types of Pro Bono Cases

The pro bono work usually revolves around consumer/credit fraud, child advocacy, divorce, domestic violence, immigration, family law, veteran, and senior citizen cases. However, most paralegals offer pro bono services in the family law domain.

Finding Pro Bono Work

Generally, pro bono opportunities become available for both paralegals and lawyers. If, however, there aren’t any substantial pro bono work options to attend to and leaves a paralegal with little time to satisfy their annual pro bono work requirements, they may venture out and look for pro bono work opportunities at different places. Some of these organizations include the National Immigration Law Center, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Children’s Legal Protection Center, and The Innocence Project. Additionally, the organizations that may refer pro bono work are state bar associations, the American Bar Association, and National Federation of Paralegal Associations.

Pro Bono Duties and Ethical Considerations

A paralegal’s pro bono duties could vary with the case in hand and also the firm or organization the paralegal is working for. Usually, paralegals analyze incoming pro bono case proposals and screen them for approval. In government-funded legal service, paralegals are specifically trained to interview clients and refer appropriate cases to the attorney. In a local bar association, a paralegal would work closely with the attorney or be an important part of the lawyer team that’s representing the pro bono client. In the case of volunteer legal advocacy programs, paralegals are expected to associate with lawyers on cases, which may even result in the paralegal offering direct client advocacy.

Just because pro bono work is offered for free to clients, paralegals or lawyers cannot be careless in their approach with the case, or refrain from giving the case the priority it deserves. The legal professional should always work in the client’s interest. This also means the details of the case or client should remain confidential unless a supervising attorney gives permission otherwise.

Pro Bono Work Rewards for Paralegals

Pro bono work may not bring financial reward, but is beneficial on several other grounds. The most important benefit is the satisfaction of having advocating for a client who cannot afford a proper legal representation. Every year in California, 80 percent of people embroiled in court cases pertaining to family issues, including cases of child custody, don’t have counsel. The deficit of legal resorts for individuals who can’t afford counsel payments is threatening to the legal framework at large, which is supposed to work in the interest of people regardless of their financial health.

The next most important takeaway is experience, training, and the opportunity to showcase talent. This is especially true in the case of paralegals that’ve just started their career and have not yet had the opportunity to work on a substantial legal case. The knowledge and hands-on training acquired are typically with regard to case strategy, client communication and negotiations, discovery and hearings, and document drafting. A paralegal that spends most of his work hours taking care of routine work would find pro bono work as a tool to hone his legal skills. Additionally, pro bono work helps to boost reputation of both the paralegal and the law firm as well.

Since there’s some serious work involved in pro bono cases, there is the opportunity to meet and/or interact with several other legal professionals. This varied range of experience is invaluable to both experienced and amateur paralegal professionals. The interaction and networking also paves way to understand the legal community and how it functions. Last but probably not the least, most paralegals and lawyers get into pro bono work not just because they’re mandated to do so but also because they enjoy the process. In fact, lawyers are in the industry primarily to serve the underrepresented and misrepresented section of the society, and pro bono work helps them do exactly that.

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