Pro Bono Requirement and Program

Service pro bono publico (“for the public good”) is a cornerstone of every attorney’s professional development and responsibilities.

Columbia Law School’s mandatory pro bono program, which was adopted in response to a student initiative in 1992, ensures that every student devotes at least 40 hours to public interest law service between the end of 1L year and March 1 of 3L year.

Since the program’s inception, more than 50 percent of every graduating class has exceeded the required 40 hours, and nearly 85 percent have indicated they are committed to performing pro bono when they become practicing attorneys. Social Justice Initiatives (SJI) works with student organizations, legal service providers, government agencies, law firms, and other community partners to facilitate a wide variety of pro bono projects and opportunities.

If you are an attorney seeking pro bono help for a public interest matter from our students, visit our For Employers page. SJI does not offer legal advice to individuals or organizations.

Watch our Pro Bono 101 video tutorial to learn more about the Columbia Law School pro bono graduation requirement for J.D.s, the New York State Bar admission pro bono requirement, how to find pro bono opportunities, and how to get credit for your work.

There are key differences between what counts toward Columbia Law School’s Pro Bono Requirement (applicable to J.D. students only) and what counts toward the 50-hour Pro Bono Requirement for the New York State Bar (applicable to J.D. and LL.M. students seeking admission to the Bar). 

If applying to be admitted to the New York Bar, upon completion of the work, you must complete a New York State Bar Pro Bono Affidavit to obtain credit, which is submitted along with your post-bar paperwork. Learn about the New York rule and access the Pro Bono Form Affidavit.

Learn more about requirements and projects below.

To qualify for Columbia Law School credit, pro bono projects must be:

  • Law-related: The project requires knowledge of the law for completion.
  • Supervised by an attorney (either directly or indirectly): The supervisor will sign off on the final work product (and/or a Student-Initiated Petition, if applicable).
  • In the public interest: Public interest work includes legal services to those without the financial resources to pay counsel as well as services aimed at securing or protecting civil rights, civil liberties, or public rights; or improving the legal profession, the judicial system, or the public's understanding of public interest law. 
  • Uncompensated: Students may not receive any form of financial remuneration (salary, stipend, or grant) or academic credit (writing or other) for their work.
  • Completed after 1L year and before March 1 of the 3L year (with the exception of Spring Break Caravans or preregistered spring break projects).

If you are unsure if your work counts, contact SJI at [email protected] prior to starting your work.

Most students fulfill their pro bono projects through established pro bono placements (which do not need a Student-Initiated Petition), including:

  • Columbia Law School’s In-House Pro Bono projects, including student-run and firm collaborations or the Sidley Austin LLP Spring Break Caravans.
  • Additional, uncompensated weeks worked at a Guaranteed Summer Funding or Human Rights Internship Program summer placement.
  • Uncompensated, non-credit-bearing, law-related work at: 
    • Legal services, legal aid, or advocacy 501(c)(3) organizations 
    • Public defender offices (such as American Civil Liberties Union, Legal Aid Society, New York Legal Assistance Group, Legal Services NYC, Bronx Defenders, AALDEF, etc.)
    • Government agencies and offices (at the local, state, or national level, such as District Attorney’s offices, U.S. Department of Justice, New York City Council, etc.). 

Many are listed on LawNet. If not, a Student-Initiated Petition is required prior to beginning work.

  • Work for a judge that is unpaid and not used as the basis of academic credit.

Other placements that may qualify for pro bono credit with the preapproval of a Student-Initiated Petition include:

  • A law firm’s pro bono, public interest work, for which the firm is not compensated (must occur during a week in which the student is not being paid for their work).
  • Columbia Law School clinics during a semester in which the student is not enrolled in the clinic.
  • Columbia Law School externship placements (including the D.C. and Judicial Externships) during a semester in which the student is not enrolled in the externship and/or during weeks beyond the time that a student is required to work for academic credit.
  • Nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization whose primary purpose may not be legal, as long as the work itself is law-related and supervised by an attorney.

Other ways to find projects:

  • Check your email for announcements of project trainings and new pro bono projects from [email protected].
  • Join a student organization that focuses on issues or subject areas that are important to you. They work in collaboration with SJI to create pro bono projects.
  • Log into Symplicity and click on “Job Postings,” then “CSM Jobs.” Click on “Advanced Search,” select “Pro Bono Opportunities” under Position Type, then click on Search. 
    • If you are able to make a more significant time commitment, you should also consider internship opportunities, which you can find via a search selecting “Fall or Spring Internship” or “Summer Internship” under Position Type.
  • PSJD is a global network of more than 120 law schools and more than 12,000 public service organizations that contains information about thousands of domestic and international organizations and pro bono opportunities. Go to PSJD.org and open a free student account to search for projects in a particular practice area or location.
  • The New York State Pro Bono Opportunities Guide allows you to search for opportunities in New York City and State and is searchable by county, topic area, and population served.
  • Approach your professors to ask for contacts in their field or to see if they need assistance on qualifying pro bono projects.
  1. Before you start your work, check if it qualifies. If you are unsure, contact SJI at [email protected].
  2. If necessary, file a Student-Initiated Petition. This form is required for pro bono work completed at non-established placements.
  3. While you do your work, it may be helpful to track your hours using a template like this.
  4. Within 30 days of completing each placement (mandatory or voluntary), a student must complete an exit questionnaire via LawNet and request that the supervising attorney complete a supervisor’s report. To fill out an exit questionnaire, go to “My Services,” select “Pro Bono Status” under SJI, and click “Fill out Exit Questionnaire.” Once you have completed your exit questionnaire, you will receive a prompt to send a supervisor’s report to your supervisor for completion. You may also request a supervisor’s report by clicking on the “Action” button next to the relevant placement and selecting “Request Supervisor’s Report.”

These tips are governed by the formal Guidelines for Pro Bono at Columbia Law School