I have heard my share of lawyer jokes over the years. We get our share of public criticism too. While some of this may be deserved, many in our community do not realize that my colleagues donate thousands of hours each year by providing pro bono publico services to their respective communities.
The word pro bono publico is a Latin term that means “for the public good”; usually shortened to pro bono. Lawyers throughout Georgia provide pro bono services for professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service.
The Georgia State Bar does not require its members to provide pro bono services. However, it is strongly recommended. This type of work not only provides sometimes vital legal assistance to those who otherwise could not afford it, but it also benefits the lawyer providing the service as well.
There are thousands of Georgians who cannot afford a lawyer. This is particularly true in most civil cases where a litigant does not have the right to a court appointed lawyer. Many people face divorce, landlord/tenant disputes, and other civil lawsuits on their own. Oftentimes, particularly in domestic relations cases, there is an attorney on the other side. While some judges will give pro se litigants (litigants without an attorney) a little leeway, the pro se litigant is always at a terrible disadvantage. Pro se litigants do not know the rules of evidence, possible available defenses, or the proper way to defend a case. Rarely have I seen a situation where a pro se litigant obtains a good result in a civil case.
Many of my friends who are civil attorneys donate countless hours representing poor people for free or at a reduced rate in civil lawsuits. A large number of these attorneys are from the west Georgia area. When they step up to help another person in need, the courtroom playing field becomes equalized. This pro bono service results in fairer divorce hearings and more equitable judgments in other civil lawsuits. I salute my civil law colleagues for their service.
Pro bono service is also performed in criminal cases. While the United States Supreme Court has held that indigent defendants in criminal cases have a right to an attorney, many private criminal lawyers across the state provide free legal representation or representation at a significantly reduced fee.
A prime example of this is the work of “conflict attorneys” in criminal cases. Many criminal prosecutions involve the arrest and formal charging of multiple co-defendants. Under most circumstances, there would be a conflict of interest for one attorney to represent all of the defendants in a criminal case. So, the state must seek out private criminal defense attorneys to serve as conflict attorneys on a case by case basis. These attorneys are paid. However, the fee is always less than the attorney would normally charge a client on the case.
I am proud to say that I have served as a conflict attorney for a number of years. It is my primary way of providing pro bono service to my community.
The other benefit to pro bono work directly impacts the lawyer performing the service. Christ taught us to be givers. He did this for a very important reason. Givers are much more likely to trust in God, remain humble, and develop the type of personal relationship with Him that makes our lives whole.
I am very proud that my profession has so many honorable members in Georgia. Our pro bono work is one of the most important cornerstones that hold that honor in place.