5 Times Pro Bono Changed Your World

It’s easy to think that pro bono doesn’t affect you, but really it’s happening all around you and has drastically changed your world. Here are 5 recent times pro bono cases changed the course of history.

1. Same-Sex Marriage

Credit: NYTimes

Same-sex couples have fought for marriage equality for decades. Hundreds of court cases across America have been litigated, including a handful that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Finally, last year the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples are allowed to marry.

Same-sex marriage would probably still be banned if thousands of lawyers hadn’t donated their time pro bono to fight for a cause they believed in. From the largest law firms with teams of pro bono lawyers (Ropes and Grey argued the Supreme Court case that ultimately allowed same-sex marriage), to solo practitioners litigating locally, lawyers worked together to make immense progress for LGBTQ individuals, and society at large.

2. Victims of 9/11

Thousands of people suffered extreme losses in 9/11. As Congress created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, a group of lawyers created Trial Lawyers Care (TLC), including more than 1,100 pro bono attorneys taking on cases for more than 1,700 families across the country and worldwide. Not only were the lawyers helpful in recouping losses for victims, but the lawyers also helped created closure. As Marc M. Dittenhoefer puts it:

“Every time you picked up the file, there was sort of an emotional flashback to that day.”
9/11 Memorial

3. Guantanamo Detainees and CIA Torture

Most people who have been detained at Guantanamo cannot afford a lawyer to represent them. However, hundreds of lawyers have donated thousands of hours (worth millions of dollars) to represent detained terror suspects and challenge the U.S. government for holding them indefinitely without trial.


In the same vein, vast pro bono resources have helped shed light on the CIA’s rendition program, where the CIA transfers terrorism suspects to third countries known to use torture. Mounting pressure from lawyers at institutions like NYU Law’s Global Justice Department led to the Senate’s release of the Torture Report in late 2014. Had pro bono lawyers not continually pressed on transparency and accountability, the Torture Report might still be classified today.

4. Discrimination through Voter ID Laws

In the past few years 36 states including Texas, Florida and South Carolina passed voter ID laws. Many of these laws have been challenged because they disproportionately affect the 11% of the population — mostly elderly, minority and low-income groups that tend to vote Democratic — that can’t afford or can’t easily access a state ID.

Credit: MSNBC

Pro bono lawyers have challenged these laws as unconstitutional and as violating the Voters Rights Act. Pro bono lawyers successfully blocked or overturned laws in Florida, Texas and South Carolina, to ensure that everyone truly enjoys their constitutional right to vote, regardless of their race, age, political affiliation or socioeconomic status.

5. Defining South Sudan

Most people know that in 2011 Sudan held a referendum that led to the creation of a new state: South Sudan. What most people don’t know is that the decision of where to draw the new state line on the map was made in a pro bono arbitration. The area in dispute, called Abyei, is roughly the size of Belgium. It is oil rich (which is why Sudan wants it), but is home to a tribal group Ngok Dinka that has strong ties to Dinka of South Sudan.


Pro bono lawyers played a pivotal role in determining whether that land belonged to Sudan or the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) (represented by WilmerHale — including Gary Born — and the Public International Law & Policy Group).

Although conflict ultimately broke out in the Abyei area when Sudan’s troops invaded in 2011, displacing 110,000 Ngok Dinka (most of whom remain displaced today), the pro bono arbitration remains an important decision that may have saved thousands of lives.

What Could Have Been…. 6. Citizen’s United

The famed Citizens United v. FEC case set a controversial precedent for election spending and free speech. The decision essentially allowed for unlimited election spending by individuals and corporations, including the popularization of super PACs. At the time it was argued, the Brennan Center for Justice and others submitted pro bono briefs opposing the decision.

I wonder how Citizens United v FEC would have been decided if other lawyers had volunteered their time to work on the case…