The American Bar Association’s Model Rule of Professional Responsibility 6.1 states: “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”
Recently, New York became the first state to mandate a 50-hour rule for all attorneys licensed to practice in the state. This decision by the state court’s administrative board has brought the issue into sharp focus and has undoubtedly served as a reminder that public service is inextricable from being a lawyer.
This article aims to encourage young attorneys to embrace this rule and offers some practical pointers for incorporating pro bono into one’s repertoire. There are multiple reasons for taking this rule seriously, the most important of which is that it advances justice and the rule of law, as well as provides a rewarding experience for most attorneys.
The Growing Gap in Access to Justice
The subtext of Rule 6.1 is that people at the bottom of the economic rungs should have equal access to courts and the justice system, and lawyers play a critical role in making this happen.
There are indeed vast unmet legal needs in the United States. According to a snapshot provided by Young Lawyers Legal Aid in 2009, less than one in ten of those involved in the justice system have legal representation. This finding is supported by the Legal Service Corporation (2006–2009), which found that few legal problems of low-income individuals are dealt with by legal professionals. The Society of American Law Teachers’ Committee on Access to Justice attributes this failure to law schools and their curricula. The committee asserts that schools fail to cultivate a service mentality among law students, graduating few with any understanding of the crisis.
Attorneys Fall Short
Despite the noble aspirations of the bar to make access to justice a reality, Rule 6.1 stands as a minority rule among bar members. In a survey published in 2009, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service reported that only one-fourth of all respondents met the minimum recommendation.
New lawyers can help ensure that disadvantaged people have access to the judicial system by committing to Rule 6.1. Below are some ideas for incorporating pro bono practically into one’s work regimen.
Do what works for you. As there are multiple ways of meeting this recommendation, find the type of legal work that would be most rewarding for you. In this regard, the Arch City Defenders in Saint Louis, MO is noteworthy. The group consists of three graduates from Saint Louis University School of Law, class of 2009. These individuals each took on full time work after graduation, yet shortly after passing the bar they joined forces to represent the indigent and elderly for free. Ever since, they have been helping people’s lives for the better, sometimes at the cost of simply making a phone call or showing up in court.
Be creative in your commitment. Legal work comes in all forms, and you might contribute to areas that reflect your interests and skills. Whether it be legal research and writing, consulting, policy work, or litigation, how to meet the requirement is limited only by one’s imagination.
Don’t underestimate the benefits. Pro bono work is not only personally rewarding and a social good but it also can open doors to new contacts and clients, create camaraderie, and provide career opportunities. It also benefits the profession by upholding the unique status of lawyers as stewards of justice.
There are personal and professional benefits to volunteer work. Remember, 50 hours a year is just a floor. Although some will track this requirement rigidly, others may go well beyond due to the satisfaction they derive. It takes less than an hour per week to fulfill this rule and make “justice for all” a guiding principle of one’s legal career.