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.