When Mildred Loving penned a desperate letter to then-attorney general Robert Kennedy asking for help, he sent her to the ACLU, who chose to take the case pro bono. Mildred, a black woman, and her husband Richard, a white man, were imprisoned in the state of Virginia for breaking the state’s long-standing anti-miscegenation laws, and as a part of their punishment, the couple had to leave their pastoral home in the countryside for twenty-five years. Mildred hated life in the city Washington, D.C., and longed to return home to Virginia, so she enlisted the help of the ACLU, who referred her to novice lawyers Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop. The two took on the case pro bono, and in 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that any and all miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.
Lawyers have often used pro bono work advance social progress and contribute their skills to the greater good of society heavily since the 1960s. Unfortunately, public defenders are usually too swamped with cases to take on much if any pro bono work, but those in the private sector often choose to balance their heightened bills with free work for those in need, often for civil liberties cases. According to a 2012 ABA survey, lawyers who work for themselves and those in large firms do the most pro bono work — each group averaging over sixty hours of pro bono work per annum.
Elite law schools train lawyers specially for pro bono cases that they suspect could alter future interpretations of the law by means of a Supreme Court appearance. Throughout US history, lawyers have utilized a handy shortcut through the legislative branch via a Supreme Court decision. The NPR spinoff podcast More Perfect delves deep into the history of SCOTUS rulings as a means of rewriting laws in a congressional composition unfriendly to an idea. Some of the biggest cases that the Supreme Court has ruled on, from issues of same-sex relationships to desegregation to gerrymandering, have drawn intense criticism from commentators and legislators alike claiming that the Court was overstepping its bounds. Since the infamous case of Baker v Carr, SCOTUS has ruled on more and more political and legislative issues, which has only spurred more impetus for lawyers to take on pro bono cases.
Both left- and right-leaning lawyers in training enroll in “clinics” on how to prepare a potentially-monumental briefing for the Supreme Court.
In recent years, lawyers noticed that middle-income citizens were falling through the cracks in terms of the need for service. The same way that social safety net benefits cut off before recipients are earning a living wage, often those who need lawyers appear on paper not to need the same intense level of assistance that the poorest of the poor need. As such, lawyers coined the phrase “Low Bono” to describe reduced-cost services for those who can afford small fees but not the usually steep price tag of a top-tier lawyer. The phrase also describes smaller-scale pro bono work that won’t necessarily make it into the history books but will make a huge difference in the lives of the people.