How does the Federal Pro Bono Project Work?

A judge may refer a litigant to the Project for placement with pro bono counsel if the litigant (1) is self-represented, (2) lacks the financial resources to retain counsel, (3) has made reasonable efforts to obtain counsel, and (4) has a case that warrants pro bono representation. 

Once a judge determines that a litigant is qualified for placement through the Project, s/he refers the litigant to the Project and stays proceedings pending appointment of counsel. We then contact our Federal Pro Bono Panel of highly-regarded volunteer firms and attorneys to determine who has the interest, capacity, and ability to take on the case. Once we have identified an appropriate attorney or team of attorneys and receive confirmation that there are no conflicts of interest that would prevent them from representing the client, we notify the Court and the judge issues an order appointing them as counsel of record.

What kinds of cases are handled through the Federal Pro Bono Project?

Most litigants who receive counsel through the Project have federal civil rights or employment discrimination claims, but cases may involve any cause of action that can be heard in federal court.  Many cases placed by the Project are ready for trial and can provide pro bono counsel with valuable trial experience.

Appointments through the Project may be for full-scope or limited-scope representation, and may be made at any stage of litigation. With full-scope representation, the volunteer attorneys represent the litigant for all purposes for the duration of the case. Limited-scope appointments may be for whatever purpose the Court deems necessary and appropriate given the circumstances. For example, the scope of appointment may be:

  • to prepare for and represent the client at a settlement conference, mediation, or early neutral evaluation;
  • to draft an opposition brief and represent the client at a hearing on a dispositive motion;
  • to conduct limited discovery; or
  • to provide a brief advice and counsel, but not representation.

Who may take cases through the Federal Pro Bono Project?

Volunteers must be eligible to practice law in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California and capable of providing high-quality representation to litigants in federal court. New attorneys are welcome to participate in the Project if they are supervised and co-counseled by experienced attorneys who can provide the necessary procedural and substantive guidance. In addition to providing a valuable service to pro se litigants and the Court, many attorneys find that volunteering is a great way to develop federal court experience.

The Court will reimburse costs, up to $15,000, for attorneys taking a pro bono case.  Pro bono counsel may recover attorney's fees awarded to the plaintiff as the prevailing party or as part of a negotiated settlement of the case.

How can I get involved?

To learn more or to join the Federal Pro Bono Panel, please contact Manjari Chawla, the Supervising Attorney of the Project, at 415.626.6917 or