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Pro Bono Requirement

As a condition for graduation, Harvard Law School requires all J.D. students to contribute at least 40 hours of legal pro bono work. Our hope is that by giving back to the community, our graduates will develop a lifelong commitment to using their education and skills to contribute to the public good. 

Outlined below are places students can work, the types of work students can perform, and the process for ensuring pro bono hours are counted. If you have any questions about the pro bono requirement during your academic career, please don't hesitate to contact Lee Branson Mestre in the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs or set up an advising appointment.

You can also review the HLS Handbook of Academic Policies for additional information about the Pro Bono Requirement. 

Please note: The Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs is an academic office and does NOT provide legal services or advice to members of the public. For limited referral information, please visit the Legal Help section of our website.

Pro Bono requirement | Where students can work | What kind of work qualifies | Timing | Hours
Ensuring your pro bono hours are counted | New York Bar Pro Bono Admission Requirement

1. Pro Bono Requirement

Who has to fulfill the pro bono requirement? 
All J.D. students (admitted in or after 2002) must complete the 40-hour requirement.

What happens if students don't meet the 40-hour requirement?
The pro bono requirement is a mandatory component of the academic program. If you do not meet the pro bono requirement, you will not be allowed to graduate and will not be certified for admission to the Bar.

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2. Where Students Can Work 

Students can work:

  • on behalf of people who cannot afford (in whole or in part) to pay for legal services
  • for the government
  • for a non-profit organization as defined under IRS sections 501(c)(3) & (4) 
  • protecting rights of marginalized individuals/groups
  • in the broader public interest
  • for a law firm working on a pro bono basis 

The work may also be performed: 

  • in a setting in which clinical credit is given
  • in conjunction with a faculty pro bono project
  • in student-initiated projects
  • in many HLS student practice organizations

May I work at more than one placement?
While we suggest that you do your 40 hours at one placement so that you enjoy a more substantial learning experience, you may use your discretion and divide your time to work at more than one placement.

Can I set up my own pro bono project?
We encourage you to be entrepreneurial in designing pro bono work that best suits your particular interests. If you initiate your own project you should consult with the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs for project approval and supervision arrangements before starting work. Generally, large group projects are not allowed.

Can I fulfill the requirement away from campus?
Many summer jobs and volunteer positions both nationally and internationally qualify for pro bono credit. Work can also be done during joint degree programs (e.g., Kennedy School or Business School) as well as during winter terms, semesters away on exchange programs, or programs abroad. All placements must be approved by the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs before work begins. You may search Your Public Service and Clinical Practice in HELIOS for long-distance projects and organizations around the world.

Do summer public interest jobs qualify?
Most likely yes. 
Jobs that qualify for HLS Summer Public Interest Funding will also meet the pro bono requirement only if you are supervised by a licensed attorney, but credit is not automatic. We have collaborated with the Student Financial Services office to streamline the paperwork, and all forms are to be submitted to the SPIF office. Time Logs can be kept by the week rather than by the day. See the Summer Funding website for forms and procedures. Students doing a summer public interest job not funded through SPIF should contact the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs.

Does law firm pro bono work count? 
It depends. 
Working on pro bono cases through a paid summer associate job does not qualify for pro bono credit. If you work at a private firm over the summer, you may work an additional 40 hours after the summer associate program ends as long as the entire time is uncompensated and all of the work is on a pro bono case in the public interest or for a client unable to pay. Work with a firm may also be done during the school year. Learn more about pro bono opportunities in law firms in the Student Resources section of the site.

How do I find pro bono projects? 
Discrete projects are posted in the Administrative Updates and the Clinical Practice Section of HELIOS. Please complete "Your Interests" and sign up for automatic emails. You can also set up an advising appointment with Lee Branson Mestre to discuss your various options and find a project that is a good fit for you. 

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3. What Kind of Work Qualifies

Work must be legal. Since the pro bono requirement is intended to teach law by experience, work should involve the application or interpretation of law, the formulation of legal policy, drafting of legislation or regulations, and/or have an advocacy or representational component. It should not be primarily clerical in nature. All work must be supervised by a licensed attorney.

Eligible tasks include:

  • assisting an attorney at trial
  • assisting pro se litigants in court
  • client and witness interviewing and investigation
  • community legal education
  • drafting documents
  • preparing a case for trial
  • research and writing

Does work as a research assistant to a faculty member qualify?
It depends. 
It may qualify if the faculty member is a licensed attorney and if the work is done on a pro bono basis, the work is directed toward future litigation, and the student is not compensated. The work may not be strictly academic (e.g., working on a faculty member's book).

Does a judicial clerkship qualify?
However, judicial clerkships are not eligible for HLS Summer Public Interest Funding.

Does work on a political campaign or 527 qualify?
Most likely no. 
If the work is as legal counsel to the campaign or as a lawyer in the general counsel's office, then it may count toward the pro bono requirement.

Does non-legal volunteer work count toward the requirement (e.g. Big Brother/Big Sister)?
Work must be legal to qualify for the pro bono requirement. Education in the community for both adults and children concerning the legal process and their rights may fulfill the requirement if there is an advocacy or representational aspect to the work (for example, writing pamphlets about Fair Housing laws or leading information sessions on pro se divorce).

Does foreign language translation qualify?
It depends. 
Foreign language interpretation on behalf of a client in an approved legal services setting (generally HLS clinics which provide legal services) will qualify. Written translation work does not qualify since it does not have an advocacy or representational component.

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4. Timing

When can students begin working towards the requirement?
Spring semester of the 1L year.
Work can also be done in the summers between law school years, during 2L and 3L winter term, or during vacations.

When must students complete the requirement?
Before spring break of 3L year.
You must complete the work and submit all the paperwork before this time. Students enrolled in a clinic during 3L spring semester or participating in HLS TaxHelp are excused from this deadline.

When will hours appear on the transcript?
Within several weeks of completion of the pro bono paperwork.

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5. Hours

May students do more than 40 hours of pro bono work?
You are encouraged to do more than 40 hours. As long as the placement where you are conducing pro bono work is approved and all paperwork is completed on time, additional hours will be acknowledged by HLS. We ask that you let our office know of any additional pro bono work so we can recognize efforts above and beyond the requirement. Students who complete more than 1,000 hours of pro bono work are noted in the graduation program during Commencement. In fact, 93% of students do more than 40 hours!

Does training time count towards the requirement?

Does transportation time count towards the requirement?

Does observation time count toward the requirement?

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6. Ensuring Your Pro Bono Hours are Counted

What is the procedure for students volunteering with an HLS student practice organization (SPO)?
If you are working with an approved HLS student practice organization, an officer or supervisor should first meet with the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs to discuss the project and process. Each student must submit all of the required pro bono forms to the SPO administrator or project leader. If you will be volunteering for an extended period of time, you may hand in your time logs at the end of each semester or year and we will keep them on file.

What is the procedure for students doing clinical work?
Almost all clinicals automatically count towards the pro bono requirement, except for those where clinical work is for a for-profit entity or project. At the end of every semester, clinical credits are automatically converted into pro bono hours at a rate of 60 hours per credit. Additional hours are not counted as pro bono hours. If you are earning clinical credit you do not need to submit any pro bono forms. You will receive a notice confirming completion of the pro bono requirement after successful completion of the clinical (i.e. a passing grade has been achieved). If you have previously completed the pro bono requirement, the hours will be added to your student record.

What are the steps for fulfilling the pro bono requirement?
To receive pro bono credit, the following must be completed: 

  • Project Terms and Conditions form
  • Time Log
  • Supervisor Evaluation
  • Online evaluation in HELIOS

See our Forms page for all paperwork. The link to the online evaluation will be emailed to you.

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7. Pro Bono Resources

HLS students have many choices if they choose a career at a law firm. These Law Firm Pro Bono links offer some resources to evaluate law firm pro bono. Set up an advising appointment with Lee Branson Mestre to discuss pro bono culture at law firms and how you can best integrate pro bono into your law firm career.


8. New York Bar Pro Bono Admission Requirement

The state of New York recently introduced a pro bono requirement for all New York Bar applicants. Beginning January 1, 2015, all applicants for admission by examination to the New York Bar must perform 50 hours of law-related pro bono service prior to filing their application. Read about the requirement and contact the New York Bar directly with questions.

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Last modified: November 10, 2014

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