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Public Interest Law /Pro Bono Work

A Rinn Law Library guide to resources available in Public Interest Law and related subject areas.


Public Interest Law encompasses the practice area of law that focuses on the public good. When looking for resources on Public Interest Law it is important to account for the intersectional nature of the subject. Public Interest Law often intersects with other subject areas that address social changes and causes or more narrowly focus on specific populations or underrepresented groups such as disabled persons, elderly persons, children, inmates, minority groups, those with economic hardships, etc. Public Interest Law also deals with employment fields and employers whom are classified as agents whose primary work deals with the public good, such as public defenders, non-for-profit corporations, local and federal government sectors.

From an academic standpoint and as a library in which its role is to support the curriculum, scholarship and clinical work of its college, a collection that supports these goals should focus on resources that provide the following:

A. Vocational Guidance

B. Historical Reference

C. Practitioners' Manuals

D. Publications that reflect and explore changes and trends in the field from local, national and international perspectives

E. Access to case law, regulations and statutes that effect subject areas or issues in the field.

Subject Headings

The following subject headings represent Public Interest / Pro Bono Law for the purpose of searching for related materials:

  • Public Interest Law
  • Cause Lawyering
  • Pro Bono
  • Social Change
  • Social Justice
  • Legal Aid
  • Legal Assistance
    • Marginalized groups (including but not limited to):
      • to the poor
      • for children
      • inmates
      • to the elderly
      • disabled
  • Poverty
  • Other
    • Legal Profession (broader term to use when having difficulty finding relative materials under other subject headings)
    • Legal Ethics (related term to use for resources related to the rules of conduct and ethical responsibilities related to lawyers for Pro Bono work)
      • Professional Responsibility

Definitions of Relative Subject Headings


Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) – Editor Bryan A. Gardner

public-interest law (1969) 1. A statute that advances social justice or some other cause for the public good, such as environmental protection. 2. Legal practice that advances social justice or other causes for the public good. • Although public-interest law primarily encompasses private not-for-profit work, the term is sometimes used to include the work of government agencies such as public-defender offices. Cf. CAUSE LAWYERING; social justice under JUSTICE (4).

cause lawyering (1993) The practice of a lawyer who advocates for social justice by combining the activities of litigation, community organizing, public education, and lobbying to advance a cause past its current legal limitations and boundaries. — Also termed activist lawyering; progressive lawyering; radical lawyering. See social justice under JUSTICE (4). Cf. PUBLIC-INTEREST LAW.

social justice (1902) 1. Justice that conforms to a moral principle, such as that all people are equal. 2. One or more equitable resolutions sought on behalf of individuals and communities who are disenfranchised, underrepresented, or otherwise excluded from meaningful participation in legal, economic, cultural, and social structures, with the ultimate goal of removing barriers to participation and effecting social change. — Also termed justice in rem. Cf. personal justice; CAUSE LAWYERING.

pro bono (proh boh-noh) adv. & adj. [Latin pro bono publico “for the public good”] (1966) Uncompensated, esp. regarding free legal services performed for the indigent or for a public cause <took the case pro bono> <50 hours of pro bono work each year>. • The Model Rules of Professional Conduct ask that every lawyer aspire to rendering at least 50 hours of pro bono services a year. — pro bono, n. “The bar in this country has a long-standing tradition of service pro bono publico — legal services ‘for the public good,’ provided at no cost or a reduced fee. This concept encompasses a wide range of activities, including law reform efforts, participation in bar associations and civic organizations, and individual or group representation. Clients who receive such assistance also span a broad range including: poor people, nonprofit organizations, ideological or political causes, and friends, relatives, or employees of the lawyer.” Deborah L. Rhode & Geoffrey C. Hazard, Professional Responsibility 162 (2002).

legal aid (1890) 1. A system in which government subsidizes the provision of legal services to the poor. 2. Free or inexpensive legal services provided to those who cannot afford to pay the normal fees. • Legal aid is usu. administered locally by a specially established organization. See LEGAL SERVICES CORPORATION. “In the 1870's and 1880's the only substantial move toward improvement was the limited beginnings of legal aid work. The common law, and in some states a few early statutes, held out to the poor the help of counsel assigned by the court. But by the later nineteenth century this practice had long fallen into disuse in civil cases. In criminal cases, the glaring unfairness of lack of counsel had kept the practice alive. However, it was limited, in practice if not in law, to the offenses that carried the most serious penalties; and in the great cities it was often the means by which police-court hangerson victimized the families or relatives of the accused. The roots of modern legal aid work were in the service first tendered by a German immigrant aid society in New York in 1876, and during the slow growth of the movement over the next thirty years this limited origin was characteristic. The founding of the Detroit legal aid unit in 1909, by the city bar association, marked the first recognition by the organized bar that it had some responsibility to do something to make justice more available to the poor. As late as 1910 there were still but fourteen legal aid societies in operation. But here, as in so many other respects, 1910 was a threshold year. In the next three years the number of legal aid organizations doubled. The lead now passed from the single-mission or proprietary groups which had done most of the work theretofore, to the unorganized charities, which now saw legal aid as one phase of their broad programs. By 1918 there were forty-one societies and four public defender offices.” James Willard Hurst, The Growth of American Law 152–53 (1950).