From the Chair...

Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

The True Reward in Pro Bono Awards

In the wake of last October's National Celebration of Pro Bono, during which the ABA Center for Pro Bono counted almost 1000 separate Celebration events that took place throughout the U.S., I am thinking about the many events which we convene specifically to honor and celebrate the lawyers and law offices (or students and schools) who stand out as pro bono champions. Awards events take many forms, and are held throughout the year. For instance:

  • Local and state bars frequently shine the spotlight on successful pro bono advocates. The Chicago Bar Foundation convenes over 700 people for a summertime Pro Bono & Public Service Awards Luncheon, during which it celebrates the work of a broad array of honorees. The state bars of Georgia and California are two of the many state bars that formally recognize the pro bono efforts of their members, often with multiple awards differentiated between the type of practice a lawyer works in (e.g., small firm) or the kinds of pro bono cases she handles (nonprofit transactional work).

  • Among nonprofit law offices, Philadelphia VIP, which is the city's main pro bono clearinghouse, exemplifies what many other organizations do. VIP's Awards Ceremony honorees include lawyers and firms who handled pro bono matters to government offices and private companies that provide free services to help VIP do its work. VIP also awards a "volunteer of the month" distinction.

  • State Supreme Courts also recognize their jurisdictions' standout pro bono advocates.  In Massachusetts (my home), our Supreme Judicial Court's Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services "annually presents the Adams Pro Bono Publico Awards to honor Massachusetts lawyers, law students, small and large law firms, government attorney offices, corporate law departments, law schools or other institutions in the legal profession that demonstrate outstanding and exceptional commitment to providing volunteer legal services for the poor and disadvantaged."  And while not an awards program per se, the Colorado Supreme Court launched a program through which it recognizes law offices that commit to averaging 50 annual pro bono hours per lawyer. And again, the Massachusetts high court runs a similar program.

  • We at the ABA Standing Committee for Pro Bono & Public Service are no strangers to offering accolades. The Standing Committee presents five awards to individual lawyers and institutions that have demonstrated outstanding commitment to volunteer legal services for the poor and disadvantaged. The awards are presented at the Pro Bono Publico Awards Luncheon during the ABA Annual Meeting in August.

Clearly, the legal community invests substantial time and energy in bestowing awards upon those among us who are exemplary pro bono practitioners. But one may ask why we put so much effort into our awards processes, considering that awards are barely a motivating factor in why lawyers do pro bono work. Professor Deborah Rhode has produced a substantial amount of analytical research on pro bono's place in our profession. In 2005, Rhode published data showing that "awards by employer or bar association" ranked, overall, dead last among twelve possible motivations to do pro bono work.1 More recently, this Committee's own findings, in Supporting Justice III, A Report on the Pro Bono Work of America's Lawyers (March 2013), suggest that formal recognition of past volunteer efforts is not considered to be highly influential in terms of what case–referral agencies may do to encourage pro bono.2

Why, then, do we go to great lengths to salute our pro bono leaders? Is it self–congratulation? Is it a waste of time and resources? Hardly. And the answer to why we honor our pro bono champions, I think, has at least as much to do with we who do the honoring as it does with the honorees. Pro bono awards serve to:

  • Inspire attendees to emulate those whose work is celebrated,

  • Unite diverse sectors of the legal community around pro bono's value, and

  • Reaffirm pro bono itself as moral and professional ideal.

First, recognition and awards exist in large part to inspire others to emulate the honoree. When lawyers gather together — whether 10 or 500 of us — to honor and thank another, our hope should be that every attendee becomes just as motivated to act as the one whose work we celebrate. And we who organize awards programs should think about how that goal can be emphasized in awards presentations. Encourage the award recipients (and presenters, and masters of ceremony) to include in their remarks insights into:

  • building pro bono into busy practices,

  • staying motivated,

  • developing relationships with public interest law offices that refer cases, and

  • how personally and professionally fulfilling it is to serve someone who had nowhere else to go.

Five hundred people should leave the awards event looking for their next pro bono case.

Second, awards recognition events are opportunities to unite diverse sectors of the legal community. Impactful pro bono work is appreciated by:

  • Colleagues who work in the pro bono advocate's practice setting, because they can appreciate the value of the time, energy, and expertise which the advocate invested in pro bono.

  • Public interest practitioners, who are grateful for the support they receive when a pro bono advocate invests in their mission.

  • Judges and court officials, who appreciate not just the altruism at the root of pro bono service, but also that pro bono often helps turn the wheels of the justice system. When you next speak with a trial court judge, ask her whether it's useful having volunteer attorneys staff a help center to guide self–represented litigants through the byzantine procedures of litigation, or whether having volunteer lawyers in the courtroom leads to more just outcomes.

We should ensure that our awards events are inclusive of these many different sectors, and that the awards programs highlight the broad cross–section of legal professionals represented. (On a related note, we should not forget about court reporters and the many other vendors who volunteer their services in support of our pro bono work.)

Finally, award recognition is not just praise for an individual, but praise for the ideal that the individual has lived out in their pro bono practice. Our awards events can and should serve as emphatic reaffirmations of the moral and ethical goals that guide us. As important as Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 is as the formal embodiment of our professional responsibility, we can use awards programs to center attention on 6.1's moral grounding — on the fact that we are stewards of the justice system with unique abilities to not only to connect pro bono clients with meaningful access to their justice systems, but to see justice achieved for them.


1 Deborah L. Rhode, Pro Bono in Principle and in Practice, Stanford University Press, 2005, pp. 130–32.

2 ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, Supporting Justice III: A Report on the Pro Bono Work of America's Lawyers, p. 26, March 2013, available at: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/
probono_public_service/ls_pb_Supporting_Justice_III_final.pdf
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