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 to your supervisor and their client. It is expected that you will act professionally and behave ethically.  As you begin work on a pro bono project:

  • Clarify with your supervising attorney relevant deadlines, methods of communication, and the nature of the work;
  • 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;
  • Follow agreed upon 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. Additionally, a lack of professionalism by a pro bono volunteer jeopardizes the Pro Bono Program’s ability to partner with host organizations in the future.

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.

Law students are not licensed to practice law and must volunteer under the supervision of a licensed attorney or law school faculty member. Students may not engage in pro bono legal work without supervision, as this would constitute the unauthorized practice of law.  Law student volunteers work under their supervisor’s bar license and therefore the attorney supervisor is obligated to ensure compliance with all applicable ethical rules. Volunteers should be especially mindful of the following three ethical rules:

1.  Unauthorized Practice of Law: Law students should not offer legal advice, draft documents or provide any legal opinions, representation or assistance except 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. While the attorney does not always need to be physically present, the supervisor should be available to answer questions and provide direction to the volunteer as needed.

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 internships and/or personal contacts. For example, if a student volunteering at the Legal Aid Justice Center to help a client with an employment case is later asked by their summer employer to work on case involving the former client’s manager, the student will have a conflict that must be disclosed.  Your supervisor should ask you about potential conflicts before you being work.

3.  Confidentiality: Confidentiality rules were developed to protect the interests of clients. Confidentiality applies not only to oral communications but also to documents, case files, intake memos, legal research, and notes from interviews with witnesses or other relevant parties. 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. Before using any document as a writing sample, ask for permission and remove all client names or other identifying information. Disclosing even minor details about a case can compromise a legal representation. 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, immediately consult your supervising attorney or contact us 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)