Pro Bono Opportunity Guide

New to Pro Bono?

You’ve come to the right place.

Please note, this website does not provide legal assistance or connect people with pro bono lawyers. In Chicago and Cook County, please click here for more information on finding legal help. Outside of Cook County, please click here for more information on finding legal help.

1. Pro Bono in Illinois

A network of pro bono and legal aid organizations provides critical legal assistance to low-income and disadvantaged people across Illinois. These organizations range in size from several larger organizations that collectively serve tens of thousands of people on a wide range of issues to a number of smaller organizations that target their services to particular legal issues or communities.

Fewer than half of low-income people who encounter a legal problem will be able to access legal help because there aren’t enough pro bono and legal aid resources to go around. In addition, a growing number of moderate-income people in our community are unable to find affordable legal help. The net result is many thousands of people are left without the assistance they need to fairly and effectively resolve their legal problems.

Each year, tens of thousands of attorneys volunteer their time and talents to help many people in need in our community get necessary legal help on a range of legal issues. As you look for the opportunity that is a good fit for you, it is important to be mindful that pro bono and legal aid programs are working to meet a high level of need with extremely limited resources. Strong pro bono programs screen cases, provide training, and give ongoing support for their volunteers. Volunteers should expect that support and also recognize the important role that organizations play in making pro bono opportunities available. The ultimate goal for everyone concerned is to ensure that clients receive high-quality legal assistance.

2. Why Should You Do Pro Bono?

As lawyers, we are officers of the justice system and have a special responsibility to ensure that all people, not just those who can afford it, have access to the justice system. In fact, it is our ethical obligation as attorneys in Illinois to provide pro bono assistance to persons in need of legal services who cannot afford them. The preamble to the Supreme Court of Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

It is the responsibility of those licensed as officers of the court to use their training, experience and skills to provide services in the public interest for which compensation may not be available. An individual lawyer’s efforts in these areas is evidence of the lawyer’s good character and fitness to practice law.

Professional Duty

  • Recognizing the importance of pro bono, the Illinois Supreme Court requires as part of the annual attorney registration process that all licensed attorneys report their pro bono service and qualified monetary contributions to support legal aid.
  • The Chicago Bar Association Pro Bono Resolution encourages CBA members to participate in pro bono activities for a minimum of 50 hours each year.
  • Similarly, the American Bar Association Model Rule 6.1 encourages lawyers to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year.

Professional Development

  • Pro bono matters expose attorneys to new substantive areas of the law and provide excellent skill-building opportunities for lawyers.
  • Pro bono generates goodwill for your company or law firm, as well as the opportunity to interact with many others in the legal profession.

Personal Satisfaction & Community Improvement

  • Pro bono work provides an opportunity to learn about and become involved in your community.
  • Your interaction with low-income and disadvantaged people in our community can bring an important perspective that is sometimes lost in our fast-paced practice.
  • Doing your part to help people who need it is rewarding.
  • By providing competent representation to low-income or disadvantaged people, you can make our community a better place to live.

3. Questions to Ask Before You Take a Case

Before committing to a pro bono case, you should (1) understand the pro bono program’s expectations, and (2) receive any needed training and support.

Depending on your needs, you should ask the following questions of the program staff:

  1. Does the program thoroughly screen clients?
  2. Before referring a case to a volunteer lawyer, the program should, at a minimum, complete a comprehensive screening of clients. A program should also provide a statement of facts and assessment of the case.

  3. How does the program’s intake system ensure that I will receive a meritorious case or project?
  4. Solid intake and screening procedures should ensure that you are receiving a meritorious case involving an eligible (financially and otherwise) client.

  5. Will the program assign me a case that matches my expertise, interests, and time restraints?
  6. A program’s intake and screening procedures should ensure that the case is within the parameters of the type of work for which you volunteered.

  7. What types of training and support does the program offer to its volunteers?
  8. Programs offer a variety of support mechanisms and training to its volunteer lawyers that should include all or some of the following:

    • Legal Support
      • Substantive law and procedural training and support
      • Legal manuals (containing compiled legal research)
      • Form pleadings
      • Mentors (program staff or more experienced volunteer lawyers)
    • Time Management Support
      • Co-counseling arrangements
      • Program staff attorneys to cover in emergencies
    • Training Specific To The Organization And Its Clients
      • Handbooks with program policies and staff contact information
      • Client sensitivity training
    • Malpractice Insurance & Administrative/Logistical Assistance
      • Malpractice insurance
      • Office space for client interviewing and meetings
      • Administrative assistant/legal support (through volunteer paralegals, law students)

  9. For which expenses, if any, will I be responsible?
  10. Some pro bono programs require that the clients pay for out-of-pocket expenses such as court costs, filing fees, etc. However, some programs maintain a fund to cover the same, while others allow or depend upon the volunteer to pay these expenses.

  11. Will I be covered by the program’s malpractice insurance?
  12. Most pro bono programs in Illinois have malpractice insurance available for volunteers. The individual opportunities listed on this website indicate whether an organization offers malpractice coverage to its volunteer attorneys.

  13. What is my relationship with my pro bono client and the pro bono program?
  14. A pro bono program should clearly communicate the nature of the relationship it is establishing between the program, a client and a volunteer. That agreement should be reflected in a written retainer agreement. A volunteer lawyer should discuss with the pro bono client the extent of the representation the volunteer agrees to undertake on the client’s behalf and document that understanding in a written retainer agreement.

  15. Often clients may have more than one legal problem. How can I ensure that the client understands that I am agreeing to provide representation only in a specific matter?
  16. A retainer agreement should clearly state that the pro bono attorney is providing representation only in the matter referred. A program should assure volunteers that they are not expected to provide representation in other matters, and instruct them to refer clients back to the program if the need arises, unless a volunteer is willing to assist the client in additional legal matters.

  17. Once I accept a case, will the program keep in touch with me?
  18. A pro bono program should maintain contact with its program volunteers through periodic follow-up via telephone or email as part of the program’s comprehensive tracking system. A tracking system provides a mechanism for determining that volunteers are progressing on cases the program has placed with them and that the program is providing effective and high quality legal services to the client.

  19. Once I accept a case, what are my responsibilities to the pro bono program?
  20. Generally pro bono programs ask that the volunteer attorneys: keep the program apprised of the status of the case on a regular basis (for example, every 60 to 90 days); seek support and mentoring when needed; advise the program of any problems or issues that arise; advise the program when the case is closed, the disposition thereof, and the number of hours you spent on the case; and complete any evaluation forms.

  21. What if the case becomes too much for me to handle?
  22. Some pro bono programs can facilitate co-counseling and/or mentoring arrangements with program staff attorneys or with other volunteer lawyers. In some instances, the program may agree to take the case back if it becomes too onerous for a volunteer.

  23. What should I do if I leave my position or join a new firm?
  24. Many firms welcome pro bono cases, so check with your new firm about whether you can keep the case in your new position. If you are unable to take the case with you, you should treat the case as any other open matter that you have — work with your firm to transfer the case to another attorney, if possible. Most importantly, in all situations, communicate with the legal aid pro bono program about any change in responsibility for the matter, and remember that you are responsible for the matter until it is transferred to another attorney or back to the organization.

4. Relevant Illinois Supreme Court Rules

Illinois Supreme Court Pro Bono Reporting Rule

Illinois Supreme Court Rule 756(f) requires all attorneys licensed in Illinois to report, in connection with the attorney’s annual ARDC registration, pro bono legal services provided and qualified monetary contributions made during the preceding 12 months.

Pro Bono
Supreme Court Rule 756(f) contains a broad definition that illustrates four distinct ways in which lawyers can use their unique training, experience, and skills to help the public on a pro bono basis.

Under the rule, qualifying “pro bono legal services” include:
(a) legal services to a person of limited means;
(b) legal services to an organization designed to address the needs of persons of limited means;
(c) legal services to certain charitable, religious, civic, or community organizations; and
(d) pro bono training intended to benefit legal service organizations or lawyers who provide pro bono services.
According to Rule 756(f), “persons of limited means” are not only those persons with household incomes below the federal poverty standard, but also those persons frequently referred to as the “working poor.”

Qualified Monetary Contributions
The rule also encourages attorneys to make financial contributions “to an organization that provides legal services to persons of limited means or which contributes financial support to such an organization.”

An attorney’s failure to report the required information will result in an attorney’s name being removed from the master roll of licensed attorneys in Illinois.

Illinois Supreme Court Rules Allowing Additional Pro Bono

  • In-House Counsel
  • Attorneys who are licensed in Illinois as in-house counsel under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 716 may perform pro bono service in Illinois without any additional registration or affiliation requirements.

  • Attorneys Licensed in Other States, but Not Illinois
  • Illinois Supreme Court Rule 756(j) provides that attorneys who are admitted in another state and are not disbarred or others wise suspended from practice may perform pro bono service by doing the following:
    (1) annually filing the required paperwork and information with the ARDC;
    (2) working with a qualified sponsoring legal aid organization or other qualified entity; and
    (3) participating in any training required by the sponsoring organization.
    Forms and additional instructions are available on the ARDC’s website and a list of sponsoring entities is available here.

  • Attorneys Registered as Retired or Inactive in Illinois
  • Illinois Supreme Court Rule 756(j) provides that attorneys who are admitted in another state and are not disbarred or others wise suspended from practice may perform pro bono service by doing the following:
    (1) annually filing the required paperwork and information with the ARDC;
    (2) working with a qualified sponsoring legal aid organization or other qualified entity; and
    (3) participating in any training required by the sponsoring organization.
    Forms and additional instructions are available on the ARDC’s website and a list of sponsoring entities is available here.

Need More Help Finding the Right Fit?

The Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF) Pro Bono Support Program is your person-to person resource for pro bono. CBF staff have extensive knowledge about the many great pro bono opportunities, and we are available to help you identify and connect with opportunities that are a good fit for your schedule, interests, and goals. We also welcome your feedback about your experience with pro bono, gaps in our system, or things we might do better. Contact Angela Inzano at 312.554.4952 or [email protected].

The Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) is a statewide organization that connects law students and lawyers with those in need of free legal services. Through its Pro Bono Program, PILI works to increase the availability of pro bono legal help for those who cannot afford an attorney in Illinois by developing innovative pro bono opportunities, offering pro bono programming and resources, cultivating best practices, and celebrating the life-changing pro bono performed throughout the state. For more information about PILI and/or statewide pro bono opportunities, contact Sarah Taylor, Pro Bono Program Manager, at (217) 693-6017 or [email protected].