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FAQ for Students
Definition of Pro Bono
What is pro bono?
While there are a number of definitions, the American Bar Association's (ABA) Rule 6.1 defines pro bono as "legal services to those unable to pay."
What are the goals of Michigan's Pro Bono Pledge?
Why should I do pro bono?
It is estimated that our current legal system meets less than 20 percent of the legal needs of the country's poor, and legal aid turns away more than 50 percent of eligible clients seeking their services. More pro bono work by students and lawyers alike can help fill this gap.
However, beyond helping fill a significant gap in our legal system, it's likely that you will get as much, if not more, out of your pro bono projects than the organizations requesting your help, including practical experience with case preparation, research and writing skills, professionalism, leadership, networking, client contact, and interviewing skills—basically, all of those skills that are easier to teach in the "real world" than the classroom. Plus, you'll have the opportunity to explore a practice area that interests you without having to spend one of your summers or class choices trying it out.
Does the ABA require pro bono work? Do individual state bars?
The ABA's Rule 6.1 states that "every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year." Most state bars have their own pro bono rules, which are cataloged here.
While the ABA rule and most state rules are aspirational (meaning there are no consequences for failing to meet the standard), some states have made pro bono work compulsory. For example, the New York Bar has recently implemented a requirement that every new applicant must complete 50 hours of pro bono service before he or she can be admitted. You should check with your state bar directly to find out whether or not pro bono work is required, particularly if it is an admission requirement for the bar.
Michigan's Pro Bono Pledge Defined
What is the "Pro Bono Pledge"? How many hours do I have to complete to satisfy the Pledge?
Michigan's Voluntary Pro Bono Pledge encourages student pro bono work for two main reasons: 1) to expose students to a range of legal issues and give them an invaluable experience that will shape their education, and 2) to help students make contacts with professionals already working in a field of law that they may pursue.
In fact, it's likely that you will get as much, if not more, out of the projects than the organizations requesting your help, including practical experience with case preparation, research and writing skills, professionalism, leadership, networking, client contact, and interviewing skills—basically, all of those skills that are easier to teach in the "real world" than the classroom. Plus, you'll have the opportunity to explore a practice area that interests you without having to spend one of your summers or class choices trying it out.
There is actually a third reason for the Pledge—to familiarize students with their professional legal obligation to their communities and underserved populations while they're still in school. The American Bar Association's (ABA) Rule 6.1 states that "every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year."
Michigan's Voluntary Pro Bono Pledge asks students to perform 50 hours or more of "qualifying" pro bono work over their three years in law school.
Is there a smaller Pledge goal for LLMs?
Yes, LLMs must complete 25 hours to satisfy the Pledge.
What does "qualifying" pro bono work mean?
To qualify for the Pledge, students' work must be:
Can you provide some examples of work that qualifies under the Pledge?
Sure, while this list is not exhaustive by any stretch, qualifying work includes law-related work: on behalf of indigent clients at a nonprofit organization; at a prosecutor's or public defender's office; for a government agency or office; for a student organization, such as the Food Stamp Advocacy Project or Family Law Project, where there is a supervisory attorney; to protect important legal rights and liberties at a nonprofit organization; and to educate the public's understanding of a law.
What types of work do NOT qualify under the Pledge?
Examples of non-qualifying work include, but are not limited to: clerking for a judge, assisting in political campaign efforts, fundraising, work done for a law journal or similar organization, and work that receives academic credit or compensation.
If you have any questions about whether a particular activity qualifies, please contact the Office of Career Planning at email@example.com.
Can I count training hours and travel time toward the Pledge?
No, training hours and travel time do not count. You should only count hours that you are actually working on a project.
Does the work have to be law-related, or does community service count?
Yes, while volunteer work of all types is valuable and a great way to connect with the community, lawyers (and soon-to-be lawyers) have special skills that no other community member can duplicate. Thus, while we encourage you to be as active in the community as you would like to be, the Pledge is specifically aimed at encouraging our students to think about their professional legal obligations, in law school and beyond.
Does work for compensation or academic credit qualify?
No, the work must be uncompensated and not for academic credit.
What about work done through clinics or externships?
While we recognize that students often go above and beyond the call of duty during their clinical or externship experiences, there is no easy way to calculate how many hours above the "norm" a student has gone. However, if you keep a case beyond the semester, or stay on at your externship, you may count those hours toward the Pledge, as long as you are not receiving additional credit for your efforts. For example, if you take the Child Advocacy Clinic during the fall semester, but you conduct a trial in an ongoing case during the winter semester, you may count the hours toward your Pledge provided you do not receive academic credit for that work.
Does work performed during the summer qualify? What about work done between terms or during winter break?
Yes, while a student must complete at least 10 hours of pro bono work during the semester (while classes are in session) to satisfy the Pledge, the remaining 40 hours may be completed during the summer, between terms, or during winter break, so long as the work otherwise meets the criteria above.
Examples of this include:
Does pro bono work performed in conjunction with a student group qualify for the Pledge?
Yes, if it otherwise qualifies, since student groups are, and have long been, a primary way our students have connected with the surrounding Southeastern Michigan community. As noted above, though, while student groups often do wonderful community service projects, only projects that are law-related and are supervised by an attorney qualify for the Pledge. You will find student group projects in the Pro Bono Project Listings with all the other available projects.
Can I create my own pro bono project, or does it have to be arranged by the Law School?
Yes, you are welcome to pursue a pro bono opportunity that is not listed. If you'd like help, please set up an appointment with Amy Sankaran, Director of Externship and Pro Bono Programs, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734.764.7787.
How do I get started on the Pledge?
We have created a password-protected online database to match organizations' projects with interested students. To use the database, first, complete the Student Interest Survey, which lets us know that you are interested in the Pledge. Use your uniqname and password to log in. We’ll use your survey information to add you to our pro bono listserv for announcements. Further, we will occassionally contact you if there are projects available that match your expressed interests.
Second, review the Pro Bono Project Listings to see if there is anything that interests you. If you find something, see the Pro Bono Student Toolkit for information on how to sign up for the project.
Finally, contact the supervisor of your selected project as soon as possible, but no later than within 3 business days, to get started. Once the project is underway (that is, you have talked with the organization and begun your work), you must "link" yourself to the project. To link yourself to a project go to the Pro Bono Project Listings and choose the project. There are links at the top and bottom of the page to link yourself to the project. Once you are "linked" to the project you will be able to enter your hours completed toward the Pledge in the Student Hours Tracking Database.
How do I ensure my pro bono hours count toward the Pledge?
To obtain credit under the Pledge, you must do two things. First, enter your hours in the Student Hours Tracking Database. Please note that you must be "linked" to the project before it will appear in the drop down menu within the database. To link yourself to a project, go to the Pro Bono Project Listings and choose the project. There are links at the top and bottom of the page to link yourself to the project.
Second, you must ensure that two forms are submitted to the Office of Public Service no later than 30 days after your project is completed: 1) a Student Evaluation, and 2) an Organization Evaluation, which includes the signature of your supervising attorney (though, if the project is an internal one run by a Michigan Law professor or student group, the Organization Evaluation is not required; we will follow up with the supervisor(s) separately).
You are welcome to enter the hours into the Student Hours Tracking Database as you go, or all at the end, but we recommend the former because it is much easier to remember your hours that way.
Can I perform more hours than the Pledge requires?
Of course! The total number of hours you complete will be placed on the certificate you receive from the Dean after graduation.
Can I get pro bono credit if I did the project a year, or even two years, ago?
No. Our office will only count pro bono hours toward the Pledge if they are completed after August 31, 2009. Further, you must submit your hours and evaluations within 30 days of completing the project.
Can 1Ls do pro bono work?
Yes. Many 1Ls have done so quite successfully, reporting that pro bono work kept them grounded in the midst of the fairly theoretical first-year courses. However, please note that some 1Ls find that pro bono work is too much to take one while they are also trying to navigate classes and a new environment, especially during the first semester. Please think about your own personality and study needs/habits before committing to help an organization.
Is the Pledge a graduation requirement?
No, it is a voluntary pledge.
Of course! The total number of hours you complete will be placed on the certificate you receive from the Dean after graduation, so please continue to track your hours after reaching the 50 hour mark.
Pledge Completion and Recognition
What happens when I complete the Pledge?
Graduating students performing at least 50 hours of pro bono work will receive a Certificate of Pro Bono Service from the Dean, recognition at an annual pro bono banquet, and acknowledgment during the Honors Convocation.
Are there penalties for not completing the Pledge?
No, the Pledge is completely voluntary. We promise not to track you down or shame you publicly if you take the Pledge, but don't finish it.
When is the last date I can enter my hours to have them count toward the Pledge?
While you are welcome to enter your hours right up until you graduate, in order to receive recognition for your completion of the Pledge, all hours must be submitted NO LATER than October 25 of your last semester for December graduates and March 25 of your last semester for May graduates.
What should I do if I am experiencing problems with my project, organization, or other aspect of the program?
Please talk to Amy Sankaran, Director of Externship and Pro Bono Programs, at email@example.com or 734.764.7787 as soon as you realize there is a problem with your project. Please do not wait until the project is over to express your concerns, as we may be able to address them while the project is ongoing.
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