The Latin word bono is, to our ears, naturally funny. “Bone-oh,” as in Sonny Bono or Matteo Bono. You cannot count Paul David Hewson, aka Bono, because he pronounces it “Bahno.”

There is also pro bono, Latin shorthand for pro bono publico, “for the public good.” The law is supposed to mete out justice, but Justice, blind as she is, often lets her scales tip in response to coins dropped on her scale’s little pans. Higher priced lawyers have better resources, seem to get better results, and work for wealthier people than less expensive attorneys. This is why the news causes a stir when reporting on a wealthy person going to the pokey. Pro bono attorneys either charge nothing or very little for their services, in fulfillment of a professional obligation to serve the public. Using a pro bono divorce lawyer comes with (another Latin word here) a few caveats (caveat: “may he beware of”).

Finding a Law Firm Offering Pro Bono Representation

Generally, individual lawyers do not set themselves up as strictly pro bono attorneys. They cannot afford to, noble as it is. A law firm may take on a certain amount of pro bono work, and assign the least experienced lawyers to those cases. Why would they take on any free work?

The Virginia State Bar (VSB) has its ethical rules (Admit it: you did not think lawyers had ethics, did you?) that point out practicing law is a privilege and a duty. Rule 6.1 of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct states that “a lawyer should render at least two percent” of her or his professional time each year. This can mean poverty law, civil rights law, public interest law, or volunteer work that increases the availability of pro bono legal services.

The firm or a group of lawyers can satisfy their collective responsibility under the Rule. Suppose you approach Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga and McCormack to engage their professional services for your divorce, but you want the work done pro bono publico because you have no money. The least experienced lawyer can, by the unanimous consent of all the Hungadungas and a McCormack, be assigned to spend 50 percent of that lawyer’s time on pro bono work on behalf of the 25 partners and associates (each person’s two percent). You will not get a McCormack, much less a single Hungadunga, looking at your case.

The junior lawyer may be absolutely fine to handle your divorce, but that attorney’s time is also stretched to cover other pro bono cases. Should your case develop a … wrinkle, shall we say … the lawyer’s inexperience may mean you lose an important point of your divorce case, such as child custody, or a spousal support end date. The lawyer has a professional obligation to provide the best service she or he can, but that does not mean spending countless hours poring over your file at the expense of time on other files. Nor will the junior lawyer press hard to educate herself or himself about that particular wrinkle affecting your case alone. Put yourself in that inexperienced lawyer’s shoes — would you go in search of a Hungadunga to ask for help if it meant you appeared unable to do your job?

Pro Bono Work is 100% Voluntary

Under Virginia law, pro bono publico work is entirely voluntary. Many fine law firms devote many valuable hours to serving the public good in cases related to civil rights, non-profit organizations, elderly and impoverished clients, and juveniles. They are not obligated to view a divorce as a pressing pro bono need.

Legal Aid is insufficient to meet the need for pro bono work; the strain is so great that the VSB even puts out a pamphlet directed at professionals, hoping to increase their volunteerism well above the two percent threshold.

With law firms pressed into service with civil rights issues, evictions, unlawful terminations and other vital pro bono issues, your “free or low-cost divorce” simply will not get much attention.

Free Resources are Limited in Family Law

Not to diminish your very real need for expert legal advice with your divorce, but pro bono resources in the state are stretched thinly, so divorce work — if done pro bono publico at all — will go towards the most vulnerable Virginians first. Every practicing Virginia attorney fully understands the stakes: Individuals represented by counsel are twice as likely to have a favorable outcome compared to those who are unrepresented, or who attempt to represent themselves, says the VSB.

The old saying, “You get what you pay for,” may be good to keep in mind of you are shopping around for legal services for your divorce, and are hoping to get by for the smallest cash outlay. If you qualify for pro bono services, the economic realities of any major firm are that you will not get the names on the shingle. You cannot really fault a law office for that, since every firm faces fixed costs (real estate, staff salaries, paper clips, those oddly long yellow pads) that must be met every month.

What Pro Bono Really Looks Like

The VSB-recommended two percent of professional time can mean a lawyer provides a free half-hour consultation to community members of specific groups (municipal employees, say, or school teachers) or waives the fee for an educational seminar attended by the elderly.

Imagine your divorce would need 75 hours of staff time and 25 hours of associate or partner time. A pro bono service could be the donation of one hour from each group, and billable hours for the other 98 hours.

For experienced, professional help with your divorce that is worth the investment, contact our men’s divorce lawyers or call 757-383-9184. We may not be free, but with our services, you soon will be.

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