More than half of all American lawyers perform free pro bono services for clients who cannot afford to hire an attorney, according to a nationwide ABA survey released in 2018.
The survey of 47,000 lawyers in 24 states revealed that 52% provided pro bono services in the previous year, with the average lawyer working 37 hours. Some lawyers provide much more pro bono work. According to the survey, 9% provided 50 to 79 hours of pro bono work, and 11% provided more than 80 hours.
The ABA recommends that all lawyers perform at least 50 hours a year of pro bono services “to those unable to pay.” Approximately 20% of all lawyers meet this aspirational goal, according to the survey. This is down from 36% in the last survey, released in 2013.
The survey shows that 48% of lawyers did no pro bono work in the previous year, and 19% said they have never done pro bono work.
The average hours worked fluctuates year by year, with no apparent trend. It was 39 hours in 2005, 41 hours in 2009, 56 hours in 2013 and 37 hours in 2018. Older lawyers – age 70 to 74 – perform the most hours (58 per year). Solo practitioners and lawyers from large firms and very large firms provide the most pro bono hours (45 hours, 48 hours and 73 hours, respectively).
Type of Help
Most lawyers who provide pro bono services do so for individuals in need – 85%. Others help classes of individuals – such as a group of seniors or tenants – or organizations. For those who help individuals, the average hours worked were relatively high – 57 hours a year.
Lawyers who performed pro bono work were asked if they had represented specific types of vulnerable clients. The most common clients receiving pro bono help were ethnic minorities (30%), single parents (26%), disabled individuals (26%), elderly individuals (24%), clients with limited English abilities (23%), students (17%) and victims of domestic violence (15%).
The type of pro bono legal work performed varies widely, depending on the client and type of case. The most common tasks performed were providing advice (74%), reviewing or drafting documents (66%), interviewing clients (64%), writing letters (36%), working with other attorneys (35%), providing full representation in court (29%) and negotiating a settlement with other parties (18%).
Family law was the most common legal area of service for pro bono services, followed by criminal law, litigation, estate planning or probate, immigration and real estate law. Most lawyers tend to accept pro bono cases in their areas of expertise.
In the 24 states where lawyers were surveyed about their pro bono work, results in several states were notable.
The 24 states surveyed in the “Supporting Justice” pro bono 2018 report are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming.
Source: “Supporting Justice: A Report on the Pro Bono Work of America’s Lawyers,”
ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service, 2018, 2013, 2008 and 2004.
An average of 57 hours of pro bono service per lawyer for all lawyers – the highest among all states surveyed. Two-thirds of all lawyers in Washington (68%) reported doing at least some pro bono work. Among those, the average amount of pro bono work performed was 77 hours. Washington also had the lowest percentage of lawyers who have never performed pro bono work – 10%.
Lawyers reported working an average of 49 hours of pro bono service – the third-highest among the states surveyed.
Lawyers reported working an average of 53 hours of pro bono service – the second-highest among the states surveyed. Tennessee was tops among states in percentage of lawyers who provided more than 80 hours of pro bono service – 20%.
Three-quarters of all lawyers (78%) reported providing some type of public service – the highest among all the states surveyed.
ABA Free Legal Answers
During the COVID-19 pandemic, ABA Free Legal Answers saw a big jump in the number of questions posed by people with legal problems, along with a dramatic increase in the number of lawyers volunteering to answer those questions.
Sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, ABA Free Legal Answers – www.abafreelegalanswers.org — is a virtual legal clinic through which income-eligible clients can post civil legal questions, which are then answered by pro bono attorneys. Currently, lawyers in 40 states and U.S. territories are available to answer questions. Another five states have committed to participate.
Since Free Legal Answers launched in 2106, it has received more than 168,000 questions and more than 9,500 volunteer attorneys have registered to answer those questions. The most common questions concern legal issues related to family and children (40%), housing and homelessness (14%) and finance (11%).
Since March 2020, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Free Legal Answers has received more 66,531 questions – an increase of 43% over the previous year. In June 2021 alone, the program received 4,640 questions, many related to the pandemic. Also since March 2020, 2,606 volunteer lawyers have registered to answer questions – an increase of 21% over the previous year.
In early 2021, ABA Free Legal Answers expanded to accept questions on immigration and veterans issues. The website for that service is at https://abafederal.freelegalanswers.org.
The typical third-year law student performs 221 hours of pro bono legal work through clinics, other experiential courses and pro bono activities, according to the 2019 Law Student Pro Bono Hours Survey conducted by the Association of American Law Schools.
That figure is an average of the 4.38 million hours of pro bono service performed by 19,885 law students in the Class of 2019 at 105 law schools across the country. The schools represent more than half of all students in the Class of 2019 at ABA-accredited law schools.
The hours worked is rising over time. AALS has conducted the survey for the past four years. The 2016 survey found each graduating law student performed an average of 124 hours of pro bono work. In 2017, that figure rose to 184 hours, and in 2018 it was 211. AALS estimates that pro bono work by third-year law students is worth $112 million.
For all students surveyed in all years of law school – not just third-year students – the number of pro bono hours worked in 2019 was 4.69 million. That’s an average of about 78 hours per student.