What Does Pro Bono Really Mean?

Pro bono is short for the Latin phrase pro bono publico, which means "for the public good." The term generally refers to services that are rendered by a professional for free or at a lower cost. Professionals in many fields offer pro bono services to nonprofit organizations. These organizations include hospitals, universities, national charities, churches, and foundations. It is also possible to do pro bono work for individual clients who cannot afford to pay.

The term pro bono is used primarily in the legal profession. Lawyers who serve the public interest by providing free legal services to those in need do so on a pro bono basis. The provider is thought to be imparting a benefit for the greater good, instead of working for profit. The American Bar Association, which has a pro bono center on its website, recommends that all lawyers donate 50 hours a year to pro bono work.

Key Takeaways

  • Pro bono is short for the Latin phrase pro bono publico, which means "for the public good."
  • Pro bono work involves providing free services, rather than cash or goods, to those in need.
  • There is a long tradition of pro bono work in America, and the financial industry is part of that tradition.

Pro Bono's Deep Roots in America

Legacy of the Boston Massacre

In 1770, tensions between British soldiers and American colonists in Boston resulted in the shooting and killing of five Americans. John Adams, America's second president, defended the British soldiers who were prosecuted for the shootings. Although Adams believed in the American cause, he accepted the job of representing the British soldiers on a pro bono basis. No one else was willing to take the case, but Adams ultimately won. By the time the colonies declared independence in 1776, pro bono was already an accepted practice in America.

Legal Profession Maintains Pro Bono Tradition

Numerous factors are involved in the choice to conduct or support pro bono work. Sometimes, the motives are altruistic. In other cases, the goal is to promote an image or make professional connections. Most frequently, pro bono work is driven by a mixture of motives. Influencing factors could include a company’s culture, pressure from a network of like-minded colleagues, or a desire to impress a dedicated superior. Pro bono work by lawyers—including elite law firms that serve Wall Street—has always been at the forefront of major issues in the United States.

The American People

Americans also have a general inclination to do good as a religious or social conviction. Moreover, stressful times inspire charitable actions by individuals, groups, and corporations in the United States. We saw that happen in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and during the global economic crisis and lockdowns crisis.

Pro bono work often helps the most in times of tragedy.

Pro Bono in Finance

Some people might think that pro bono activity and finance present a contradiction in terms. After all, large corporations, investment banks, commercial banks, and asset-management firms tend to be geared toward maximizing profit. However, there is an abiding precedent of pro bono publico and similar concepts in financial services in America. As long as there have been wealthy individuals, families, and companies, there has been pro bono on Wall Street.

The Financial Planning Association

Plenty of finance professionals, like financial planners and advisors, reserve a portion of their services for pro bono work. The Financial Planning Association (FPA) is a U.S.-based professional organization that began in 2000. Their primary goal is to "elevate the profession that transforms lives through the power of financial planning." As such, FPA members must follow the organization’s code of ethics. Among other code requirements, financial planners must provide their services with integrity, objectivity, confidentiality, and fairness.

The FPA’s Pro Bono Program

Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a group of certified financial planners (CFPs) from the FPA decided that they needed to help those in need. So, they started the FPA's pro bono program. It helps underserved individuals and families who are striving to build assets and improve their lives but cannot afford to hire a planner. Through this program, the FPA offers numerous resources, including a free online search tool to help people find objective, ethical, client-focused financial planners.

Related Work on Wall Street


Pro bono is different from but similar to other charitable-giving concepts in finance. Wealthy families and individuals have engaged in philanthropy from the days of J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.


Corporations often have specific corporate social responsibility programs as well. During the Great Recession, Forbes published an article that discussed the trend of working on a pro bono basis in general. Specifically, it covered how Target had heightened its volunteer efforts. In 2020, FPA members and other financial professionals provided pro bono advice and guidance to people who lost their jobs in that year's global recession.

Financial Services

Many financial institutions, both large and small, have their own pro bono programs. Some firms have mentoring arrangements in place with other businesses or schools. Others tailor their pro bono offerings to specific enterprises that highlight their unique strengths. It is easy to learn about corporate-sponsorship programs by searching a company’s website. These activities are usually explained in the "frequently asked questions" or the "about us" sections.

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  1. American Bar Association. "ABA Model Rule 6.1."

  2. Roger Williams University School of Law. "The History of Lawyer Pro Bono Services."

  3. Financial Planning Association. "Power of Financial Planning Award."

  4. Forbes. "Pro Bono Meets the Public Company."

  5. Financial Planning Association. "Covid-19 Pro Bono Financial Planning Program."

  6. Financial Advisor Magazine. "Financial Advisors Rally To Help Americans Cope With Coronavirus Crisis."