The term "pro bono," often used to describe legal work done free of charge, is derived from the Latin phrase "pro bono publica" meaning "for the public good."
At the University of Idaho, law students log more than 13,000 hours annually for the public good.
"We have two ways in which students do pro bono work - they can do it for credit or they are required to do at least 50 hours, purely volunteer, before they graduate," UI College of Law Dean Jerry Long said. "We require 50, but the average is closer to 100 that they actually do before the graduate."
In addition to the roughly 7,500 hours of pro bono work students conduct each year as part of their requirement for graduation, Long said they also have the option of volunteering their services for credit as part of one of the five legal aid clinics offered by the UI. Long described these clinics as an opportunity for students to work with a licensed attorney, performing actual legal work and representing real clients.
UI legal aid clinics offer services on everything from immigration law to minor civil matters like landlord-tenant disputes, usually at no cost to the client, Long said. He estimated students spend an additional 5,600 hours each year doing pro bono work for credit.
"One of the best ways to learn to do anything is to actually do it," Long said. "At the same time, the legal profession has always had this tradition of service, of giving to the community, of helping those who, for whatever reason, can't afford legal services or are in a position that they need help."
From the establishment of public defenders to the constitutional requirement that all people have adequate legal representation, Long said the tenet of serving the underserved is embedded into the foundation of the U.S. judicial system. He invoked a passage from the Idaho Attorney's Oath taken when joining the state bar association - "I will contribute time and resources to public service and will never reject for any consideration personal to myself the cause of the defenseless or oppressed."
"Lawyers providing free legal services is an integral part of who we are as a country - the system would break down without it," Long said. "That's how our system works and that's how it has to work, but the only way to make sure that that bedrock principle of this country functions is to make sure that everybody has access to legal representation."
As he and other licensed attorneys mentor a new generation of legal professionals, Long said it is incumbent upon them to pass on this emphasis of service to others. Too often, he said, the law is seen as protecting only those who can afford to pay. He said guiding students toward becoming attorneys who see public service as their solemn duty plays a large part in changing this perception.
"Our pro bono program and our clinics are a reflection of the students' desire to improve the world they live in, by providing service to people who otherwise would not have access to legal expertise," Long said. "That's a really heartening thing, to see how much our students do that - they really are committed to providing public service."
Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to email@example.com.