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The History of Lawyer Pro Bono Services

Cup of Coffee with logo:What Good Shall I do This Day?

The term "pro bono" comes from the Latin phrase “pro bono publico”, which means "for the public good." While that is clear enough, the history of attorneys providing services pro bono is long, complicated, and a bit hazy. 

According to some sources, “providing legal counsel for those who cannot afford to retain an attorney takes its precedent from fifteenth-century English law.” According to another source, this pro bono practice was common in early America: “As far back as 1770, just a few years before the United States came into being, John Adams (later the country’s second president) took on the pro bono defense of British soldiers prosecuted for what became known as the Boston Massacre. He also did less-remembered pro bono work for needy members of his community. Pro bono was already established as an accepted practice at the birth of this country, and Adams’ effort – even though some roundly criticized him for it at the time – shows its deep roots in this country.” Still another source explains, “the history underlying our current conceptions of pro bono lawyering is complex, of course. One clear source can be traced to the explosion of national organizations working for civic improvement in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century--that is, from 1890 or so until the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917, a period sometimes referred to as the Progressive Era.”

Despite some disagreement about its origin story, there is wide agreement that pro bono service by lawyers is an important foundational concept in American law. The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service explains, “When society confers the privilege to practice law on an individual, he or she accepts the responsibility to promote justice and to make justice equally accessible to all people. Thus, all lawyers should aspire to render some legal services without fee or expectation of fee for the good of the public.” 

Every year lawyers, legal aid societies, and law schools celebrate Pro Bono Week in October. This year Pro Bono Week is celebrated nationally during the week of October 20-26, 2019. For more information on celebrating Pro Bono Week, see For more information on pro bono opportunities nationwide, see

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