Monday, 6 July 2009

Pro bono 'clearing houses'

During this troubled economy, there has been a notable increase in the number of lawyers in the United States volunteering to work pro bono with legal aid organizations -- a trend likely to be mirrored in other countries. Some of these recent volunteers, however, have no experience in dealing with loss of public benefits, evictions, discriminatory practices, and comparable issues that low income, legal aid clients generally confront. Instead, they are transactional lawyers experienced in finance, security laws, tax matters etc.

The problem of matching pro bono lawyers with deserving organizations that are in need of their skills is handled in São Paulo, Brazil, by the Instituto Pro Bono. This facility acts as a 'clearing house' in pro bono matters, assisting NGOs and other non-profit organizations find qualified attorneys for civil, criminal, and labor law issues.

In Washington DC, the Community Economic Development Project matches community based non-profits with law firms that can best address their business and transactional requirements.

The Pro bono and Access to Justice Committee leadership invites comments identifying additional clearing house facilities to which it can refer members for assistance in finding suitable pro bono projects.

Posted by Patricia Blair
IBA Pro bono and Access to Justice Committee


  1. Dear the IBA Pro bono and Access to Justice Committee:

    Yes, I do agree with your idea that even for pro bono legal work, still there shall be any mechanism or any criteria admission, in order to ensure that the legal pro bono work meet the highest quality possible to the client.

    My personal advice to the institution that admit legal pro bono work shall have some kinds of selection criteria or admission criteria to better guarantee the legal pro bono work.


    Vicheka Lay,
    Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    Member of IBA International Pro Bono

  2. Robin Westbrook, Pro Bono and Access to Justice Committee6 July 2009 at 04:24

    Vicheka Lay's comment reminds us of the IBA Pro Bono Declaration's resolution that pro bono work be of "a quality equal to that afforded to paying clients." Clearinghouses generally will not want to exert continuing supervision over referred cases to ensure the quality of the work, however. Nonetheless, they can, in some situations, provide training to the lawyers who will take referrals. This may be feasible where the clearinghouse refers a particular kind of case. The Spragens Tax Clinic in Washington, DC provides a one-day seminar on representing low-income taxpayers, and participating lawyers can then accept referred cases from the Clinic.

  3. Thank you, Patricia, for bringing up this issue. Indeed outside the USA there is more interest by transactional lawyers working for international law firms to do pro bono for NGOs rather than solo practitioners assisting individuals. And the most efficient way to facilitate such relationships is via a clearing house that provides preliminary screening of matters for prospective pro bono clients. For example, the Public Interest Law Institute (PILI) has successfully created several clearinghouses in Hungary, Russia and China that match up lawyers volunteering their services with NGOs that have legal challenges in order to foster long-lasting connections between pro bono practitioners and NGOs around the world.

    In addition to national clearing houses, in 2006 PILI set up the Global Clearinghouse, which partners law firms in one country with NGOs in another, focusing for example on cross-jurisdictional matters such as comparative research. PILI distributes lists of available matters on a monthly basis to its partners.

    Needless to say that the model is very successful in terms of fulfilling the needs identified by NGOs, although the need is always much greater.

    You can find additional information on the PILI Hungarian clearinghouse working with the assistance of the Hungarian Bar Association at and the Russian clearinghouse at To sign up for Global Pro Bono Opportunities, contact Atanas Politov (

  4. Tim Soutar, PB&A2J Committee7 July 2009 at 09:14

    The role currently played by clearing houses in different jurisdictions is one which is worthy of further analysis. In addition to the work being conducted by PILI, largely similar work is, for example, conducted in the UK by A4ID (Advocates for International Development) and the International Lawyers Project and in the US by the International Senior Lawyers Project. Each of these organisations acts cross-border, as well as domestically. Has anyone compiled a more comprehensive list of organisations functioning in this way around the globe? Has anyone attempted to co-ordinate their activities? (E.g. should one of them not be able to identify the relevant experience required by an NGO from one of their own volunteers, is there any system in place for passing on the request for help to other clearing houses (or does this just happen on an ad hoc basis each time?)?) In a nutshell, is there a useful role for a global clearing house for existing clearing houses?

  5. My understanding is that the UK Attorney General's International Pro Bono Coordinating Committee has been working on a project along these lines (global clearing house), including some of the organisations you mentioned.

  6. There have been a couple of comments relating to the UK which I though I should add to, only 7 months later!

    In the UK we have the court advocate/case worker disctinction between barristers and solicitors. The main domestic clearng house for solicitors is LawWorks (brokering casework and free mediation for individuals and community groups) and for barristers it is the Bar Pro Bono Unit (brokering advocacy and legal opinion writing).

    As I understand it A4ID focuses on lawyers assisting NGOs with an international development goal rather than anything domestic (albeit the NGO may well be based in the UK).

    At LawWorks all application are reviewed for their suitabliilty to be done by volunteers. This encompasses the area of the law, the merit of the case, and the financial position of the applicant. The basic premise is that the person or group cannot reasonably afford to pay for the legal advice that they need.

    The clearing houses all play an important role in ensuring that the very limited pro bono resource is best focused on those who need it. Where state support is availble we advise people to take it, freeing up volunteer support for those who cannot obtain it.