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  • Writer's pictureFrank Digon-Greer

Origin of Pro Bono Publico

What is the origin of pro bono and what is our profession doing about it?

The term comes from the Latin phrase “pro bono publico,” which stands for “for the public good.” Pro Bono work dates back to the Roman times. During the Roman empire there were “jurisconsult” who were “the men of rank, wealth, and distinction who gave legal advice without charge.”[1] They did so as a "gentlemen's hobby" related to their aristocratic leadership, and as part of their training for higher political position.[2] These jurisconsult were the advocates of their time and served the public good by representing individuals in the developing legal system.[3] As time moved forward the philosophy of pro bono service evolved. In 1275 under the First Statute of Westminster[4] serjeants took an oath, possibly the first oath of office:

Ye shall swear that well and truly ye shall serve the king's people as one of the serjeants at the law... And ye shall not defer, tract or delay their causes willingly for covetise of money or other thing that may turn you to profit. And ye shall give attendance accordingly. As God you help, and his saints ...

Many centuries have passed but, in our profession, there has always been both the need for pro bono legal services and the profession’s commitment to providing it. When we all raised our right hand and took the Florida Oath of Attorney, for example, we all swore to “. . . never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, or delay anyone’s cause for lucre or malice.” Just like the oath from 1275 we have taken an oath including a personal, aspirational goal to provide pro bono legal services to the poor.

But what about pro bono service in the United States? It, too, has a storied past. As far back as 1770, just a few years before the founding of the United States, John Adams (later the country’s second president) took on the pro bono defense of British soldiers prosecuted for what became known as the Boston Massacre. He also engaged in less-remembered pro bono work for needy members of his community. Pro bono service has been an accepted practice since the birth of this country, and Adams’ effort – even though some roundly criticized him for it at the time – shows its deep roots.[5]

Just as those early advocates centuries ago, when we chose to pursue careers in the law, we made the same commitment to serve pro bono publica. We are all privileged to have the opportunity learn law, research law, make law, practice law, change law, debate law, and, most importantly, to use the law to help people and provide legal services to low-income individuals and others in need. As attorneys, we have accepted this great responsibility to make the courts accessible to all, regardless of economic or social status, but as a profession we have a moral, aspirational goal to go further and provide direct assistance to help low income and vulnerable or underserved individuals—including children, elders, persons with disabilities, veterans, victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, persons with limited English proficiency, and others—as those attorneys did before us.

Florida and many other jurisdictions have recognized the vast unmet legal needs of their low-income populations and have deemed it a necessity to find a solution that provides greater access to legal services.[6]

No one person or single entity, private or governmental, acting alone can truly resolve the challenges low-income individuals face in gaining equitable access to Florida courts. But if we, as a profession, commit to this goal and work together in partnership with other stakeholders, we will have the opportunity to truly make a change and meet the civil legal needs of low-income individuals throughout our communities.

We have always heard about the need to provide pro bono legal services but how large is this need, really? The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 2020, Florida was the third largest state with a population of 21.5 million, 13.1% of Florida’s state population was living at or below the federal poverty level. The means Florida has more than 2.8 million Floridians living below the federal poverty level. During the 2020 – 2021 fiscal year Bar members reported providing 1,505,042 hours of individual pro bono service, plus another 25,054 hours under aggregate law firm plans, and they contributed $6,737,488.00 to legal aid organizations. While these hours and donations undoubtedly have changed the lives of Floridians for the better, there is still much to be done in Florida and across the nation.

The extraordinary efforts of attorneys across this country are commendable and deserving of the utmost respect. These attorneys have taken their oaths of professional responsibility seriously and have donated their valuable time and effort to provide pro bono legal services to low income individuals, not to mention the many law firms and corporate law departments that have cultivated a culture of pro bono service and actively encouraged their attorneys to pursue pro bono service opportunities.

Now, more than ever, there is a need for pro bono legal services to the poor, as our most vulnerable Floridians must navigate the unprecedented economic and social disruptions caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. During these extraordinary times the need for pro bono legal services to the poor cannot be overstated. Together, we can continue our profession’s rich history of service in the public interest, and, in so doing have a meaningful impact in the life of thousands of individuals right here in our own communities.


[1] Judith L. Maute “Changing Conceptions of Lawyers’ Pro Bono Responsibilities: From Change Noblessse Oblige to Standard Expectations,” 77 Tul. Rev. 91,96 (2002) [2] HANS JULIUS WOLFF, ROMAN LAW: AN HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION 96-97 (1951) (discussing development of early legal profession, circa 253 B.C.-39 B.C.). The Greek tradition differs somewhat. According to classical Greek tradition (circa fourth and fifth centuries B.C.) there was no concept of representation at trial [3] Judith L. Maute “Changing Conceptions of Lawyers’ Pro Bono Responsibilities: From Change Noblessse Oblige to Standard Expectations,” 77 Tul. Rev. 91,96 (2002) [4] Judith L. Maute “Changing Conceptions of Lawyers’ Pro Bono Responsibilities: From Change Noblessse Oblige to Standard Expectations,” 77 Tul. Rev. 91,96 (2002) [5] Pro Bono in the United States; Louis O'Neill, White & Case LLP | Thomson Reuters Foundation Friday, 22 May 2015 11:17 GMT [6] Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.


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