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 either for free or at a significantly reduced cost to the recipient—that is, on a pro bono basis. Professionals in many fields offer pro bono services to nonprofit organizations such as hospitals, universities, national charities, churches and foundations or to individual clients who cannot afford to pay the regular fee.
The term pro bono is used primarily in the legal profession, as lawyers are bound by ethical rules to charge reasonable rates and to serve the public interest by providing free legal services to those in need. As such, the provider is thought to be imparting a benefit for the greater good, instead of working for the typical for-profit motive. 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.
Pro Bono's Deep Roots in America
Legacy of the Boston Massacre
In 1770, violence between British soldiers and American colonists in Boston ended in the British shooting and killing five Americans. It is well known that John Adams, America’s second president, defended the British soldiers who were prosecuted for the shootings. And although Adams believed firmly in the American cause, he accepted the job of representing the British soldiers on a pro bono basis—and successfully—when no one else would. By the time the United States was born in 1776, pro bono was already an accepted practice in this country.
Legal Profession Maintains Pro Bono Tradition
Numerous factors are involved in an individual’s or firm’s choice to conduct or support pro bono work, some of them altruistic, some of benefit to the people who offer them and many a mixture of both. Influencing factors could include a company’s culture, pressure from a network of like-minded colleagues, a desire to impress a dedicated superior and many more. In the United States, pro bono contributions of lawyers—including the wealthy, elite law firms that serve Wall Street—have always been at the forefront of the country’s major issues. There also exists in the U.S. a general inclination to do good as a religious or social conviction. Moreover, there is the phenomenon that stressful times evoke charitable action on the part of individuals, groups, and corporations—as we saw in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Is Pro Bono a Misnomer in the World of High Finance
Because large corporations, investment banks, commercial banks, and asset-management firms are geared toward maximizing profit, some might think that pro bono activity and for-profit activity present a contradiction in terms. But this is far from true. 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, whose 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, which among other things, requires financial planners to provide their services with integrity, objectivity, confidentiality, and fairness.
The FPA’s Pro Bono Program
In 2001, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a group of certified financial planners (CFPs) from the FPA decided that they needed to help victims of disaster and those in special need in a more organized way. So, they started the FPA's pro bono program; which targets underserved individuals and families who are striving to build assets and improve their lives but cannot afford to engage a planner on their own. Through this program, the FPA offers numerous resources, including a free online search tool to help members of the public 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 Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Corporations, too, often have specific corporate social responsibility programs—Starbucks is a good example. In 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession, Forbes published an article called Pro Bono Meets the Public Company, which discusses the trend to work on a pro bono basis in general; and in specific, it talks about how Target had heightened its volunteer efforts.
Many financial institutions, both large and small, have their own similar programs. And for as many companies that adhere to them, there are just as many models: 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; often this kind of activity is cited in the "frequently asked questions" or the "about us" sections.