Professional Responsibility and Ethics

Professional Responsibility and Ethics

Pro bono student volunteers are expected act professionally and behave ethically. When you accept a pro bono project you are making a commitment to your attorney supervisor and their client.

  • Clarify with your supervising attorney relevant deadlines, methods of communication, and the nature of the work before you begin a project.
  • Keep your supervisor regularly updated and advised of any developments or potential problems.
  • Ask questions early and as often as needed to fully understand your assignment.
  • Meet all agreed upon deadlines for project completion.

Contact your supervisor or the Pro Bono Program ( immediately if you are unable to complete project as agreed. Except for clearly exigent circumstances, all work should be submitted on time.

Your attorney supervisor should discuss the rules of professional responsibility with you when you begin your project. As a law student volunteer, you are operating under your supervisor’s bar license and they are responsible for your conduct.  Pay particular attention to ethical rules in the state where you are volunteering which focus on:

1.  Unauthorized Practice of Law: In general, law students may not offer legal advice, draft documents or provide any legal opinions, representation or assistance except under the direct supervision of a licensed attorney. Students who have their third-year practice certificate may, with attorney supervision, appear in court.  Unauthorized practice of law is illegal and can impact your ability to be admitted to the Bar.

2.  Conflicts of Interest: Pro bono volunteers are covered by the ethical rules covering conflicts of interest which can arise from participation in pro bono projects, law school clinics, externships, summer internships and/or personal contacts. For example, if you volunteer to help a worker in an employment law case at the Legal Aid Justice Center, then, while doing a summer internship, you become involved with representation of the employing organization, you have a conflict. Your obligation is to inform your supervising attorney.  Ideally, pro bono supervisors will ask you about potential conflicts before you being work on your project.

3.  Confidentiality: Confidentiality rules are broad and designed to protect the interests of clients. Confidentiality applies not only to direct client communications but also to documents, case files, intake memos, legal research, and interviews with witnesses or other relevant parties. While there are exceptions to the confidentiality rules, you should not discuss or disclose any information regarding a client or their representation without the permission of your supervising attorney. If you would like to use a document you have prepared as a writing sample, ask your supervising attorney for permission and remove all confidential information including client names and other identifying information. Disclosing even minor details about a case could compromise the client and their legal representation. The ethical duty to maintain confidentiality continues even after you complete your work on the pro bono matter.

If you are unclear about your professional or ethical obligations in any pro bono placement, consult your supervising attorney or contact the Pro Bono Program at


ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct

ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, Directory of Lawyer Disciplinary Agencies

ABA Additional Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility Resources

Virginia State Bar Professional Guidelines

Serving Clients as a Law Student Pro Bono Volunteer (courtesy of the Legal Aid Justice Center)


Corey Parker

Corey Parker '20

"As a bonus, I ended up with a summer internship at Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender’s Office as a result of the relationships I built through winter pro bono."