Professional Responsibility and Ethics for Student Pro Bono Volunteers

Professional Responsibility and Ethics for Student Pro Bono Volunteers

When you accept a pro bono project you make a commitment both to your supervisor as well as to their client. Conducting yourself in a professional and ethical manner is critical as you will be practicing under the bar license of your attorney supervisor.

As you begin work on a pro bono project:

  • Clarify with your supervising attorney deadlines, preferred methods of communication, and details of the work;
  • Keep your supervisor updated and apprised of any developments or issues that arise;
  • Ask questions early and often; and
  • Strictly adhere to deadlines for project completion.

Students who commit to a pro bono project must complete that project. Not meeting deadlines inconveniences the project supervisor and could adversely impact the client. All volunteers commit to check their e-mail at least once every 24 hours and to respond to supervisors in a timely manner. Please remember that a lack of professionalism by just one volunteer can jeopardize the Pro Bono Program’s ability to partner with host organizations.

Any student who, after accepting a pro bono project, does not complete their assignment may be suspended from future participation in the Pro Bono Program. If you have an extenuating circumstance that prevents you from meeting a project deadline, immediately contact the Assistant Dean for Pro Bono and Public Interest at probono@law.virginia.edu.

IMPORTANT RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT FOR PRO BONO VOLUNTEERS:

1.  Unauthorized Practice of Law: Law students are not licensed to practice law and must volunteer under the supervision of a licensed attorney or law school faculty member. Providing legal advice without attorney supervision constitutes the unauthorized practice of law, which is both an ethical violation and a crime.

Law students may not independently provide legal advice, draft documents or offer any legal opinions or representation unless under the direct supervision of a licensed attorney. “Supervision of an attorney” implies that the student volunteer will receive appropriate training, mentoring, feedback and that all student work will be reviewed before it is provided to a client either orally or in writing. Your supervisor should be available to answer questions and provide direction as needed. If your supervisor does not respond or fails to provide the necessary guidance and oversight for you to ethically complete your project, contact the Assistant Dean for Pro Bono and Public Interest at probono@law.virginia.edu.

2.  Conflicts of Interest: Student volunteers are responsible for disclosing conflicts of interest which arise from their participation in other pro bono projects, law school clinics, externships, summer jobs and/or personal contacts. Any information learned through another attorney-client relationship could constitute a conflict. For example, if a student volunteers at the Legal Aid Justice Center helping a client with an employment case and is later asked by their summer employer to work on a case involving the former client’s manager, there may be a conflict that should be disclosed to their supervisor. If you are unsure if you have a conflict, speak to your supervisor. Many host organizations will have you complete the conflicts check process before you begin volunteering.

3.  Confidentiality: Confidentiality rules were designed to protect the interests of clients. Confidentiality applies to any information that comes from the client or is obtained during the course of representation including oral communications, written documents, case files, intake memos and notes. While there are exceptions to confidentiality, you should not discuss or disclose any information about a client or their representation without the explicit permission of your supervising attorney. Disclosing even minor details about a case can compromise a legal representation.

Before using any document as a writing sample, ask for permission from your supervisor and remove all client names or other identifying information. The ethical duty to maintain confidentiality continues even after you have completed your project.

If you have questions about your ethical obligations as a pro bono volunteer, consult your supervising attorney or the Pro Bono Program at probono@law.virginia.edu.

 

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)