Pro Bono Lawyer

A “pro bono lawyer” is a lawyer who provides legal services as a form of charity for those who cannot afford a lawyer. For example, a pro bono lawyer may help a mother who is going through a divorce and has several children. A woman in this position may not be able to afford a lawyer, so the lawyer will help her as an act of charity. To explore this concept, consider the following pro bono lawyer definition.

Definition of Pro Bono Lawyer


  1. A lawyer who offers his legal services for those who would otherwise not be able to afford them.


1720-1730        Latin (pro bono publico – “for the public good.”)

Pro Bono Lawyer for a Civil Matter

A person may retain the services of a pro bono lawyer for a civil matter if he cannot afford a lawyer to represent him in a case he files against another party. For instance, a person who has been the victim of a scheme to steal his money may not have enough money to then hire a lawyer to go after the person or company. In this case, a pro bono lawyer for a civil matter would be in order.

If someone is too poor to hire a lawyer, he can apply to the court for approval of “indigent representation.” If granted, the individual may then be required to partially reimburse the court for the total cost of legal services that he took advantage of over the course of his case. It is important to understand, however, that the right to counsel granted by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution applies only to criminal cases in which loss of liberty may be a result.

Pro Bono Lawyer for Criminal Defense

Perhaps a more common example of a pro bono lawyer is a pro bono lawyer for criminal defense. For instance, criminals break the law when they steal things because they cannot otherwise afford to pay for them. Once they’re caught, they also cannot afford a lawyer to defend them. In this case, a pro bono lawyer for criminal defense becomes necessary, else the individual would have no other choice but to defend himself.

It is preferable to have a lawyer defend you because a lawyer knows the law, and can often negotiate for a better deal on your behalf. Not only that, but the right to legal counsel is a right afforded to all Americans by the U.S. Constitution.

Who Can Qualify for a Free Lawyer

There are several situations wherein a person may be able to qualify for a free lawyer. In addition to those mentioned above, here are some additional examples that illustrate who can qualify for a free lawyer.


Immigrants may qualify for a free lawyer on issues ranging from green cards to deportation and work visas. The specific requirements for eligibility vary, depending on the program.

Disabled Veterans

Veterans who are disabled, either mentally or physically, may qualify for a free lawyer as well. The issues for which a disabled veteran may require a lawyer can refer to anything from child support and custody to issues with rent. Members of the veteran’s family may also qualify if the veteran’s disability has negatively impacted them in any way. To determine whether one is eligible, he must contact his local veterans’ association.

Civil Rights Issues

Those who have civil rights issues may also qualify for a free lawyer. For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) often assists those who need help in this regard. In this case, lawyers will often take on cases that are of interest to them pro bono. Some lawyers will take on cases involving a pay dispute if they believe that it may lead to a class-action lawsuit in the end.

How to Get Free Legal Aid

An individual charged with a crime does not have to worry about securing free legal aid, since the court provides it for him. But if the case is a civil matter, things become more complicated. In this case, an individual must seek out free legal representation for himself. He can do so in any of the following ways:

Go Pro Se

If an individual chooses to go pro se, this means that he chooses to represent himself. In fact, the term pro se is Latin for “in one’s own behalf.” If a person goes pro se, he will certainly save money in legal fees. The downside, though, is that he may not be as well versed in the law, and may not be aware of all the defenses available to him.

Law School

Some people choose to hire law students for advice, rather than hire more expensive lawyers. The positive here is that law students are up to date on the newest practices in the field of law. Students in law school clinics can practice law under the guidance of faculty members who are also lawyers. However, the rules for this practice may vary. For instance, depending on the state, some people may make too much money to qualify for this type of service.

Legal Aid Societies

Legal aid societies are non-profit organizations that help people who would not be able to afford legal services otherwise. The downside is that, all too often, the individual who applies makes too much money to qualify. This is true even if the individual’s income is low by society’s standards. However, there must be some limitation in order to prevent the organizations from becoming overwhelmed with requests.

Pro Bono Lawyer Example Involving Immigration

An example of a pro bono lawyer assisting with an immigration issue occurred in the matter of Fernandez-Vargas v. Gonzales, Attorney General. Here, the Government deported Humberto Fernandez-Vargas, a Mexican citizen, only for him to illegally re-enter the country in 1982. No one knew he was in the U.S. for over 20 years. During that time, he had a son and thereafter married the boy’s mother, an American citizen.

The Government filed to reinstate Fernandez-Vargas’ deportation after Fernandez-Vargas filed to adjust his residential status to that of a legal and permanent U.S. resident. The Government was once again victorious in securing Fernandez-Vargas’ deportation. Fernandez-Vargas, however, wanted to live in the U.S. with his wife and son.

Petition and Appeal

Fernandez-Vargas filed a petition with the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, asking the court to review the order reinstating his deportation. Fernandez-Vargas argued that, because he came back to the country before the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), he could request this status change.

The IIRIRA allowed the Government to reinstate deportation orders for a larger swath of undocumented immigrants. It also limited the relief those immigrants could enjoy as the result of a removal order. The court ultimately disagreed with Fernandez-Vargas and affirmed the barring of his application. Fernandez-Vargas then decided to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court Trial and Decision

Once lawyers all over the country got wind of this case, many attorneys were willing to represent Fernandez-Vargas pro bono. Their motivation was the probability that his case was going to head all the way up to the Supreme Court. If the case ended up making history, they wanted to be part of that landmark ruling. Fernandez-Vargas’ immigration lawyer was all too happy for the help, and chose a lawyer from Washington state – David M. Gossett.

In the end, both Gossett and Fernandez-Vargas lost, and lost hard. The Court affirmed the lower Court’s decision and ruled against Vargas 8 to 1. The ruling was a huge blow, but not the one Gossett had hoped for. Ultimately, it reversed several decisions that courts across the country had made in favor of immigrants, particularly those made by the federal appeals court in California.

In The Court’s Own Words

In their Decision, the Supreme Court wrote:

“…Fernandez-Vargas argues that the fact that the old reinstatement provision applied to aliens who had “unlawfully reentered … after having previously departed or been deported … , whether before or after June 27, 1952 [the INA’s effective date], on any ground described in … subsection (e),” §242(f), while §241(a)(5) lacks language of temporal reach, shows that Congress no longer meant to cover preenactment reentrants. But the old before-or-after clause, which was sandwiched between references to departure or deportation and grounds for deportation, most naturally referred not to an alien’s illegal reentry but to the previous deportation or departure.

“The better inference is that the clause was removed because, in 1996, application keyed to departures in 1952 or earlier was academic. Applying §241(a)(5) only to deportations or departures after IIRIRA’s effective date would exempt anyone who departed before that date but reentered after it. That would be a strange result, since the statute was revised to expand the scope of the reinstatement authority and invest it with something closer to finality.

“Fernandez-Vargas errs in suggesting that the new law is bereft of clarity and the Court should apply the presumption against retroactivity as a tool for interpreting the statute at the first Landgraf step. It is not until a statute is shown to have no firm provision about temporal reach but to produce a retroactive effect when straightforwardly applied that the presumption has its work to do. And IIRIRA has other provisions on temporal reach, which blunt Fernandez-Vargas’s argument that a negative inference in his favor may be drawn from removal of the before-or-after clause.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Deportation – The eviction of a person or group from a country.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to issue a decision in a civil matter.