How Volunteer Lawyers Work

Consultation at lawyers office.
Unfortunately, the times we need professional legal assistance aren't necessarily the times we can afford lawyers. But a volunteer lawyer might be able to help.
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Bankruptcy. Divorce. Eviction. Civil lawsuits. Debt collection. Unfortunately, the times we need professional legal assistance aren't necessarily the times we can afford lawyers.

In those times, a volunteer lawyer may be able to help. Volunteer lawyers are professionals who donate their time to help people in need. A volunteer lawyer provides his or her services pro bono.


"Pro bono" isn't always exactly the same thing as "free." Receiving assistance from a volunteer lawyer often requires you to pay a small administrative fee and complete an application. You may be responsible for certain other administrative costs, such as copies and filing fees. If your case goes to court, you'll have to pay court costs [source: VLA of Massachusetts]. But these amounts are a fraction of what it would cost to retain a full-price attorney for these services.

Although you can probably find a volunteer lawyer association or resource in your city, a volunteer lawyer won't always be able to help you. Many volunteer lawyer groups operate as poverty law centers. Before receiving their services, you'll have to establish that your income is below a qualifying level.

The kind of legal assistance you need can also be a factor in whether you qualify for pro bono help. Criminal cases likely do not qualify (although you will be able to get a public defender if you need to). Cases in which a fee is at stake -- such as malpractice, workers compensation or personal injury -- are usually out of the question as well [source: Volunteer Lawyers Network].

Volunteer lawyers can also help nonprofit organizations -- especially arts organizations -- with legal matters such as incorporation, application for federal 501(c)(3) status, conflict-of-interest and intellectual property policies, bylaws and other founding documents. Nonprofits may also face income restrictions, which are typically based on the organization's operating budget.

In this article, we'll take a look at how volunteer lawyers help the arts, as well as some of the ways this selfless work helps the volunteer lawyers. Read on.


Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

The starving artist is a sad -- and sadly accurate -- stereotype. With the exception of major industries such as Broadway spectaculars, Hollywood movies and record labels, most U.S. arts organizations follow a nonprofit business model, relying on grants and charitable donations for income. Artists who work within such organizations receive less pay, on average, than their for-profit counterparts. In this business model, one legal issue can turn into a financial catastrophe.

Volunteer lawyers for the arts (VLA) help both organizations and individuals. As with poverty law centers, VLA groups may charge a nominal administrative fee. Other services work on a membership basis. For a fee, a nonprofit or individual becomes a member of the local VLA network. Membership carries the benefit of free or steeply discounted assistance, as well as discounted educational services [source: VLA of New York].


One of the most valuable services VLA groups provide is education. The Web sites of many VLA groups are like mini-law libraries, offering long lists of free resources, recommended reading and other information [source: VLA of New York]. Education can help artists prevent legal problems altogether -- which is always more cost-effective than letting a small issue grow into a big one that needs fixing.

Volunteer lawyers are not managers, agents or accountants. They do not shoulder the full responsibility for an artist's career or an organization's bookkeeping. They rightly expect artists and arts organizations to act as professionals. But in the specialized and often bewildering world of entertainment law, VLA groups can help.

On the next page, we'll look at how volunteering helps the lawyer.


Benefits for Volunteer Lawyers

Why would someone who can command hundreds of dollars an hour give his or her work away? Well, if you've ever volunteered, you understand the deep feeling of well-being that can come from helping someone else. You may also understand what it's like to have a sense of personal, philosophical or spiritual obligation to help the less fortunate. Many practitioners are initially drawn to law out of a deep sense of social justice.

Volunteering can provide valuable training for attorneys. Some volunteer law groups offer workshops and professional development for their members [source: VLA of Massachusetts]. A lawyer contemplating a switch to entertainment law, for example, can volunteer for a few arts groups to discover whether it is indeed a valid career option.


Some professional development opportunities begin even before an attorney has passed the bar. Some VLA groups work with law schools to provide hands-on case training for third-year law students. In Atlanta, for example, these students help victims of domestic violence [source: AVLF]. Students work side by side with practicing attorneys, become familiar with the local judicial system and help clients who are in perhaps the most difficult circumstances of their lives. The experience helps make the students better lawyers and strengthens their commitment to their communities.

In the case of VLA groups, many lawyers are passionate supporters of the arts. Offering professional assistance gives them a chance to become more intimately and directly involved with their arts community. The same opportunity draws thousands of CPAs to offer pro bono accounting services and business executives to offer management consulting via groups such as the Executive Service Corps [sources: Clearinghouse for Volunteer Accounting Services, ESCAN]. Volunteers may forge lasting ties with the nonprofits they serve, going on to become board members or donors.

Even if you don't qualify for pro bono legal assistance, most volunteer law groups provide referrals, many of which take income into consideration. The bottom line? If you need legal help, you can get it.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Bar Association. "ABA Mission and Goals." ABA. August 2008. (Accessed 4/26/09)
  • Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation. "Qualifications for Volunteers." AVLF: Pro Bono in Action. (Accessed 4/27/09)
  • Clearinghouse for Volunteer Accounting Services. "About Us." CVAS. (Accessed 4/27/09)
  • Executive Service Corps Affiliate Network. "Welcome to the Executive Service Corps Affiliate Network." ESCAN: A Strategic Resource for the Nonprofit Community. (Accessed 4/27/09)
  • Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. "About Us." Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts -- New York. (Accessed 4/27/09)
  • Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts of Massachusetts. "FAQs." VLAMA. (Accessed 4/27/09)
  • Volunteer Lawyers Network. "About Us." (Accessed 4/26/09)