To narrow this question, I focus on Toronto Canada. I am NOT referring to Pro Bono Ontario, because "legal advisors on the hotline provide brief services. They do not create an ongoing relationship with you.". Unlike Access Pro Bono in B.C., Pro Bono Ontario does not assist you to instruct or retain lawyers. Many famous Downtown Toronto litigation firms tout Pro Bono.

Lenzcler Slaught

  • Representing a respondent plaintiff in an appeal from a judgment obtained in the Small Claims Court concerning a purchase of a defective vehicle.

Paliare Roland

All quotes henceforth from Murray Gottheil's article. I rule out firms outside the Greater Toronto Area, for the reasons of Murray Gottheil tout in his article.

After I cold call the Partners of their Litigation department, sometimes I get no reply. Or I get these responses. The Defendant is a wealthy Multi National Corporation.

  1. We are conflicted. One Partner admitted me on the phone that if they acted for me, then "they will not be conflicted out of a major file". Even if they do not currently represent the MNC, other MNCs they represent "clients may not take favourably to you acting against a Bank and trying to establish that a common banking practice is improper."

For example, if a firm has a deep expertise in insolvency and may have a good shot at being appointed lead counsel for an airline that is on shaky grounds, they will feel pretty stupid if they take on a file for a consumer group making a claim against the airline and are then conflicted out of the much more lucrative role of acting for the airline or its monitor in the insolvency.

  1. We do not take on a client just for small claims. We act in small claims court just for existing clients.

  2. We cannot represent you cost effectively. Our retainer costs you quantum of damages sought

The problem is that in some areas of the law, there are only so many lawyers who have deep experience and are really good at what they do. If a client has a complex matter which requires a particular expertise, it is not unusual for the client to discover that the number of knowledgeable lawyers who are available to take on the matter may be quite limited. [...] Moreover, I will readily acknowledge that there are many situations where most, if not all, of the best lawyers who practice in the relevant area of law will be in a large firm.

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    "I ruled out firms outside the Greater Toronto Area, because a layman cannot verify how competent or ethical smaller firms are." What makes you think a layman can evaluate the competence of a large firm? What makes you think all firms outside the GTA are small? Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 14:42
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    You talk about wanting "pro bono" representation, but one of the reasons for rejection is "inability to give cost effective representation", which implies they are expecting you to pay. Which is it? And why do you think you deserve free legal representation? Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 14:44
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    @DJClayworth I edited my post. Sometimes I apprise the lawyer that I can pay SOME legal fees, just not their hourly fees. For example, I can afford Legal Aid rates, which are discounted way below an average lawyer's average rate. I do not think I deserve free legal representation. That is why I offer to pay a discounted rate. But I ask this question for people who do deserve free legal representation, like innocent laymen who get wrongly convicted.
    – user49089
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 7:53

1 Answer 1


What Kind of Cases Do Large Law Firms Take On A Pro Bono Basis?

There are three main paths to pro bono representation by a large law firm.

One is to have a personal relationship with a firm or someone in it, in a way that causes one or more lawyers to see you are part of their community, when you are in a potential legal dispute that poses a grave risk of injustice to you which you have no ability to afford a lawyer to assist you with.

A pretty typical example of this would be a law firm that has a receptionist or a child of an office manager, for example, who is being stalked by a violent ex-boyfriend who needs a protection order, which a lawyer in the firm agrees to provide for free.

Some times former clients who have fallen on hard times after a long paying representation can fit in this category as well.

Often these disputes are "small potatoes" cases too minor to arouse the interest or ire of clients or prospective clients, and that are unlikely to change the law itself.

Another way to get pro bono representation from a large firm is to have a legal problem that fits into some sort of adopted cause of the law firm that doesn't conflict with its usual client base.

For example, it is fairly common for large law firms to take on the pro bono representation of someone who is likely to have been wrongfully convicted of a serious crime and is not sophisticated enough to represent themselves in the matter.

A representation like this can provide trial court experience that young lawyers in large firms rarely get, rarely conflicts with the firm's representation of large businesses and rich people, and provides a moment in the lives of the participants in which they can remind themselves that the legal system can be used in skilled hands to secure justice for justice's sake, rather than merely to advance a paying client's interests.

Assisting refugees seeking asylum, helping marginal small business owners comply with their tax obligations, and assisting a low income person with a case that has the potential to establish good precedents (e.g. regarding property rights) for your paying clients are other popular options.

Typically, these kind of pro bono representations are "pet causes" of particular lawyers in the firm and those lawyers proactively look for opportunities to locate people for whom representing them pro bono can advance the cause.

Finally, a fair amount of pro bono work comes in the nature of civic involvement with a legal angle, such as serving on the board or as a general counsel for a non-profit organization or church, or in some special one time transaction for a non-profit like a bond offering for a new building. Often, the non-profit or civic organization is one in which people somehow connected to the firm are involved.

In almost all cases, large law firms are also image conscious and will only take cases that would reflect well on the firm if they were reported upon in a newspaper story from a reporter willing to listen to their side of the story.

In a pro bono case, the law firm wants to be on the side of the case where they are wearing the "white hats" (i.e. the good guys).

When Do Law Firms Have A Policy Of Declining Pro Bono Representation?

On the other hand, in addition to actual direct conflicts, where the law firm represents the other side of a dispute with you, which of course, no one would expect the firm to represent you in on any basis, most large law firms have a class of potential clients that they refuse to accept because they constitute "business development conflicts."

Firms that are hired by insurance companies to represent defendants in personal injury cases will almost never take on a personal injury plaintiff. Firms that represent residential landlords will almost never represent a residential tenant. Firms that represent big businesses that do business with the general public will almost never take on a consumer protection lawsuit for a consumer. Firms that represent manufacturing and utility companies won't take on lawsuits to enforce environmental laws. Firms that represent employers don't represent unions.

They don't take on these kinds of clients both because their existing and prospective clients don't like it from an appearances and "loyalty to the cause"/solidarity perspective, and because they don't want to end up making precedents as a result of their skillful representation that end up hurting most of their clients.

Finally, law firms almost never represent someone who can afford their services on a paying basis for the work in question.

Similarly, law firms like to represent pro bono clients who are appreciative and reasonably tolerable to deal with. Law firms don't want to represent a client who is a headache to interact with without even getting paid to do it, unless very high principles indeed are at stake.

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