The rule of law is a delicate thing. If some individuals have more access to the justice system than others – say, the wealthy more than the indigent – faith in the entire institution falters. Hala Sandridge articulates this eloquently in a column for the Tampa Bay Tribune, where she addresses post-hurricane legal needs and the importance of pro bono service.
Helping people hold on to their homes stabilizes families and property values. Helping them overcome obstacles to employment affords them the ability to continue as a contributing member of society. Helping them rebuild their lives makes the whole community stronger…. So pro bono work is not just good for the client and it’s not just good for the soul, it’s also good for society.
Her words reflect the reasons most attorneys go into this profession – justice, advocating for the underdog, good government or something along those lines. And though attorneys generally follow through in their careers and do the right thing, too often it goes unnoticed.
Pro bono survey
That’s one reason we at Esquire decided to look into pro bono service. The other reason is our own commitment to equal access to legal representation.
The Esquire Pro Bono 2017 Survey polled more than 150 litigators for the weeklong National Pro Bono Celebration, which started Monday. The survey found that:
- 89 percent of attorneys provided pro bono services last year.
- 42 percent provided 51 hours or more.
- Of those, 37 percent provided 100 hours or more.
That’s pretty good, in my opinion, and more than a lot of Americans might expect. So why did attorneys do so much pro bono?
“It’s the right thing to do,” was the choice of 90 percent of respondents.
For younger attorneys, however, litigation experience was an important reason for doing pro bono. It was cited by 1 in 4 attorneys with 1 to 4 years of experience.
The American Bar Association’s Model Rule 6.1 says every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay and should aspire to do at least (50) hours of pro bono work per year.
In spotlighting pro bono this week, the ABA is urging the legal community to plan and participate in events assisting homeless youth. It notes “the increasing need for pro bono services during these harsh economic times and the unprecedented response of attorneys to meet this demand.”
Nonetheless, only 35 percent of Esquire survey respondents said their firm supports and reinforces the ABA standard. Forty-three (43) percent indicated their firm doesn’t support the standard, and 22 percent don’t know if the firm does or doesn’t.
Bigger firms are more likely to support the ABA standard. Sixty-four (64) percent of respondents in firms of 500 or more attorneys said their firm supports and reinforces the ABA standard. Support was still fairly strong in the smallest firms – those with one to five lawyers – at 46 percent. The figures were lower for firms in the middle ranges.
How to improve
Cleary, there’s room for more firms to support and reinforce the ABA standard. Esquire asked, what factors do you think would enable more attorneys at your firm to provide pro bono legal services? The answers:
|Better selection of pro bono cases that match my interests||24 percent|
|Lower billable hour requirement||20 percent|
|Better access to pro bono cases||16 percent|
|Larger law firm pro bono budget||13 percent|
Twenty-six (26) percent of those who chose Other suggested that a more encouraging firm culture could enable more attorneys at their workplace to provide pro bono services. Twenty-two (22) percent of those who chose Other suggested providing credit for pro bono work toward billable hours or continuing legal education (CLE) requirements.
The bottom line, as one respondent put it, is that attorneys “must choose to do it.”
Individual attorneys are very dedicated to providing pro bono legal services, but firms could do a lot more to support this work: ensure every lawyer fully participates; offer credits for the hours served; provide a clear encouraging message from those who shape the culture; and offer cases that match attorneys’ interests.
Case matching is getting easier. Sandridge describes an innovative website that helps Florida attorneys find clients who need their expertise. Nice idea.
Ultimately, as the data suggests, to improve the profession’s already robust pro bono performance, every attorney should clearly understand there’s a bedrock firm-wide commitment to do the right thing.