PSJD - Your Pathway to Public Service Legal Careers. A NALP Initiative.

Printer Friendly Version

02 - Cultivating Volunteers

Best Practices in Pro Bono:
Cultivating Volunteers

The Best Practices in Pro Bono Guides were created to provide a model for pro bono programs and increase consistency in pro bono work across organizations. The guides present concise practical information on implementing and maintaining pro bono projects.

Some of this content is provided by Laura G. Burstein, Director of Public Service at SMU Dedman School of Law, and from resources provided by other schools .

Who Makes a Good Volunteer?

Participating in the delivery of pro bono legal services is an exceptional learning opportunity for law students and significantly enhances their legal education. In its most basic form, engaging in pro bono provides a platform for students to develop critical lawyering and professional skills , help s improve access to justice , and imparts an understanding of the vital need for legal assistance in the community. Pro bono is not merely an altruistic endeavor, but rather an affirmative responsibility under ABA Model Rule 6.1. E arly exposure while in law school enables students to standardize the practice of incorporating pro bono into their professional life, helping to create a culture of ethical, compassionate attorneys committed to civility, public service, and zealous advocacy on behalf of their clients . H aving law students participate in pro bono early and often in their training helps produce lawyers who are well informed about the legal needs facing the under -represented, and are committed to increasing access to justice. Therefore, we suggest that all law students should participate in pro bono.

Law schools take many different approaches in their efforts to encourage students to participate in pro bono. Most law schools have formalized public service or pro bono programs, and some even set pro bono hour graduation requirements. Regardless of the programmatic structure, employing a staff member to vet and coordinate pro bono opportunities provides students the necessary support to identify, select, and engage in pro bono legal services that students will find interesting and impactful, while also enhancing their legal skill development. To that end, law schools play a significant role in curating impactful, educational opportunities for students to participate in, as well as training the law students to be ready to assist and make the most out of their volunteer experience.

While many schools encourage law students to engage in pro bono throughout law school, we have found that students are most successful in their efforts to assist in Who Makes a Good Volunteer ? 1 What Makes a Great Volunteer Opportunity? delivering quality pro bono legal services only after they have completed their first year of law school. The first year of law school provides students a grounding in the US legal system , an early understanding of the rule of law, and most importantly serves as a time where students begin learning the language of law and developing their analytical and problem -solving skills.

Just as important as having a foundation from the first year of law school, we find that students are best prepared to assist the community with legal concerns after receiving a training on the issues facing the low -income and disenfranchised communities. Ensuring that the training covers discussions on professional conduct as well as cultural competency, significantly improves the quality of the volunteer experience by helping to set reasonable expectations of professionalism and awaken an understanding of the importance of the endeavor. In sum, law students make outstanding pro bono volunteers, particularly when they have a foundation in legal study and have received a training on professional and cultural competency.


  • Early exposure to pro bono service helps law students make pro bono a part of their professional career.
  • Having a formal pro bono program at your school fosters a culture of pro bono and helps create the expectation that all students need to participate.
  • Before volunteering, students should receive a training geared to developing their understanding of the value of pro bono, the issues facing the underserved, and professionalism.
  • The law school should take an affirmative role in training and advising students seeking pro bono opportunities, as well as curating a list of quality placement opportunities.

What Makes a Great Volunteer Opportunity?

The best pro bono volunteer opportunities are those that align with the student’s personal or professional interests, where the impact of the work provided is tangible, and the outcome of the experience leaves the student feeling successful and satisfied with their assistance.

From the viewpoint of a law school professional, t he most desirable pro bono volunteer opportunities are those that increase access to justice for marginalized communities while at the same time, offering hands -on experience and learning opportunities for 2 students that are well -supervised by knowledgeable attorneys. Law schools want to be sure that students will have the opportunity to develop legal and professional skills by engaging in direct legal services (not merely administrative), that hopefully adds to their resume and skill set, increases their awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and helps them determine what sort of career they are seeking . To accomplish this, it is necessary for the law school to coordinate with the public interest agency to ensure that both the agency’s need for assistance and the law school’s expectations for their volunteers is mutually successful. Therefore, we strongly recommend that your school adopt a clear definition of pro bono legal service. This gives you set criteria to discuss with your public service placements as you coordinate volunteer opportunities and help set expectations.

Furthermore, we recommend that the law school develop a list of vetted public service placements and make them readily available to law students as they seek out opportunities to volunteer . Law students want to know that their volunteer hours are mutually beneficial. Through that lens, students are most compelled to participate in opportunities that are of specific interest to them, especially if the experience will expand or improve upon knowledge and skills in a particular subject area. As a result , providing a multitude of varied opportunities gives students the freedom to pursue pro bono that is meaningful to them.

As you are compiling a catalogue of placement opportunities for your students, think about creating a robust list that comprises a wide variety of opportunities. You can better reach the breadth of your students if your list of opportunities includes a range of legal practice types , such as litigation, transactional work , and research and writing. Equally important is ensuring your list has a nice sampling of law practice areas, such as family, civil rights, immigration, consumer protection, criminal law, housing, and benefits . As described above, just as important as the variety, is the necessity of ensuring that each of the placement s will provide the students with good attorney supervision. This helps to safeguard that students are providing quality work product, are not engaging in unauthorized practice of law, and that the experience is both meaningful and educational.

To help ensure that each of the placement opportunities are successful, it is important to evaluate student experiences at the different placements on your list. Schools with formalized pro bono programs, typically use evaluation forms to track the number of hours students complete at the placement; update contact information of field placement supervisors; receive feedback from the supervisor on the student’s performance; and to evaluate the experience generally. This enables the law school to play an active role to ensure that it is providing valuable volunteer experiences for the students.


  • Seek pro bono opportunities that are of interest to the students, where the work has a tangible impact on the community, and the student feels satisfied with the experience.
  • The law school should work to compile a comprehensive list of varied pro bono placement opportunities in the communities where students seek to volunteer.
  • The law school should coordinate expectations with the pro bono placements so that the students can provide much needed assistance and at the same time, provide quality legal services under direct attorney supervision.
  • The law school should track and evaluate student experiences in each placement to ensure that expectations for both the student and placement continue to align.

How to Make Sure Your Volunteers Return

We have found that law students are most likely to participate in pro bono when it is easy to identify interesting opportunities, when they had a significantly impactful experience in prior volunteer opportunities, and when there is an opportunity to receive recognition for their efforts. As described above, the law school plays an important role in vetting and curating impactful pro bono placements. When the law school also works to ensure the opportunities span the range of student interests, meet the law school’s criteria for an appropriate placement experience, provide sufficient attorney supervision, and employ a process of evaluating student and placement performance, students will find their pro bono work more consistently impactful. This increases the chances that students will return and participate in additional pro bono. Furthermore, we have found that recognizing students for significant pro bono contributions has also incentivized students to continue to volunteer far above the school’s pledge hours or graduation requirement.


  • Students are most likely to continue to engage in pro bono when it is (1) easy to identify placements; (2) their experience has been impactful; and (3) when they receive recognition for their outstanding efforts.
  • The law school should develop relationships with the public interest agencies so that they can provide the students a well-vetted list of impactful placements.
  • Recognizing specific students for their outstanding involvement in pro bono while in law school helps incentivize student participation.


Category: Pro Bono

Tags: Pro Bono