Legal assistants and paralegals can serve important roles in pro bono work.
Attorneys undertake pro bono work to provide legal services without payment or for a reduced fee to members of the community who otherwise would not be able to afford legal representation. According to Rule 6.1 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, “a lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”
Meanwhile, the American Bar Association Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Legal Assistant Services state that lawyers should facilitate legal assistant participation in pro bono activities. So, legal assistants and paralegals are allowed to assist attorneys in their representation of pro bono clients.
Guidelines for pro bono work for paralegals are provided by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. Canon 1.4 of the federation’s Model Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility and Guidelines for Enforcement, adopted in 1993, states that paralegals should aspire to contribute 24 hours of pro bono services annually.
“[The National Federation of Paralegal Associations] has a long history of support of pro bono activities by paralegals,” says Tracey L. Young, registered paralegal (RP) and president of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. “Paralegals, working alongside attorneys, participate in a wide range of pro bono activities, including senior citizen legal clinics, Wills for Heroes programs, divorce clinics, clinics for victims of domestic abuse, and general practice clinics.”
Pro bono work can be very rewarding, according to Kathryn Dickey, program director of Legal Studies at South University — Montgomery.
“Paralegals working under the supervision of an attorney providing pro bono services are rewarded by the knowledge that they have helped someone who really needs it,” she says. “Many low-income families suffer because there aren’t funds to obtain the legal services needed. Think about helping a mother with small children get out of a very abusive and often life-threatening situation.”
Whether someone qualifies for legal aid depends on many factors, including income, health status, safety, location, and whether the issue is of a civil or criminal nature.
“For example, elderly individuals can often obtain legal services regarding estate planning and tax issues,” Dickey says. “These services are provided by state and federally funded organizations.”
According to the American Bar Association, a legal assistant or paralegal is “a person, qualified by education, training, or work experience, who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Pro bono legal work offers opportunities for legal assistants and paralegals to use their professional skills and abilities to assist members of their community.
Paralegals working under the supervision of an attorney providing pro bono services are rewarded by the knowledge that they have helped someone who really needs it.
Often, legal assistants and paralegals can interview clients, draft legal documents, and provide representation in administrative hearings. Legal professionals from every segment of the legal profession contribute pro bono legal services. To get their peers involved in volunteer activities, they can tell them about the importance and value of providing pro bono legal services.
The majority of paralegals who participate in pro bono activities assist in the area of family law, according to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. However there are many legal needs in housing, health, employment, community problems, and finance and consumer problems.
A legal assistant or paralegal can perform many tasks under the guidance of an attorney, such as client intakes, referrals to specific state agencies, and collection and dissemination of various discovery issues.
The roles of pro bono legal assistants and paralegals vary depending on the nature of the program.
“Local bar association pro bono programs use paralegals for intake and screening work,” Dickey says. “Paralegals can volunteer services at charitable, religious, civic, or educational organizations, and local law offices if working under the supervision of an attorney.”
There are ethical considerations legal professionals should keep in mind when participating in pro bono work. According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, paralegals should know how the unauthorized practice of law statutes in each jurisdiction apply to pro bono participation.
Pro bono work also provides opportunities for professional growth and recognition. Legal assistants and paralegals can gain experience in drafting legal documents, interviewing clients, and providing advocacy in administrative hearings. They can participate in activities within their current areas of practice or enter a new area of interest.
Most local bar associations with pro bono programs provide training. This training is often designed to give them an understanding of the mission of the program, the nature of the services provided by the program, pro bono eligibility requirements, and an explanation of possible referral options to local agencies.
Author: Darice Britt