Does ‘Pro Bono’ Really Mean ‘For Free’?


The phrase ‘pro bono’ is a phrase the English language has borrowed directly from Latin. But its literal translation is missing something.

You may call Latin a “dead language.” But you cannot deny that Latin lives on in many modern-day languages. We use words that derived from Latin every day. We also use phrases pulled into our language directly from Latin. The phrase pro bono is a perfect example.

We usually hear the phrase when it comes to legal matters. But that’s not the only time we use it. Companies can provide their services on a pro bono basis as well.

You may know what the phrase means, but the literal translation seems to be off a bit.

In Latin, pro bono literally translates into “for good.” Good? Didn’t you always think that pro bono meant “for free?”

You may well have made that very assumption, since that’s exactly what we mean when we use the phrase.

But the reason something seems off is that English conveniently dropped a word in the original Latin phrase.

Originally, the full phrase was pro bono publico.

Pro, in Latin, means “on behalf of.” Bono, as I said, means “good.” You can probably guess that publico means “public.”

Putting the three together, pro bono publico literally translates into “for the public good.” It still means a service that is donated. But in English, since we have so many things demanding our time, we just couldn’t manage to extend ourselves long enough to squeeze in all three words.

Lawyers provide their services “for the public good” — otherwise meaning “for free” — for those clients in need that cannot afford those services. Different states’ bar associations have different rules about how many hours of public service lawyers should provide.

The American Bar Association explains it this way:

When society confers the privilege to practice law on an individual, he or she accepts the responsibility to promote justice and to make justice equally accessible to all people. Thus, all lawyers should aspire to render some legal services without fee or expectation of fee for the good of the public.

The ABA recommends 50 such hours of volunteer work per year. That sounds like a noble enterprise.

The Chief Judge of New York, Wikipedia tells us, instituted a requirement that applicants who plan to be admitted in 2015 and onward must complete 50 hours of pro bono service in order to qualify. It adds that attorneys “must report” their voluntary hours or contributions.

Funny, somehow, if they’re required to perform them, they suddenly no longer seem voluntary to me.

In the world of television, as a non-legal example, a production house or television station may devote a certain amount of time to producing public service announcements. Such work, for the benefit of charitable organizations, is likewise provided pro bono. But I’ve honestly never heard anyone label it that way.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.