Pro Bono Feature

How the National Celebration of Pro Bono Caught on Statewide in Ohio

Editor's Note: The National Celebration of Pro Bono, sponsored by the ABA's Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, is held at the end of October each year. The success of the Celebration nationally results from the hard work of pro bono advocates and supporters at the statewide and local level. Here is the story of how the Celebration became a statewide commitment in one state.

My son works in a business that uses the term "fancy." A person, place, or event is fancy if it is dressy, sophisticated or elaborate. In Ohio, the National Pro Bono Celebration is not fancy; its simplicity, practicality and sleekness have been the keys to its success.

The National Pro Bono Celebration arrived in Ohio after the American Bar Association's 2008 annual meeting, where it was rolled out to bar leaders attending the National Conference of Bar Presidents meetings and to ABA House of Delegates members at the annual Pro Bono Publico Awards luncheon, among other venues. The concept seemed a perfect fit and ideal opportunity for the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation ("the Foundation") to advance its mission of acting as a statewide convenor and collaborator in pro bono.

After a pitch by staff, the Foundation's board accepted the role of Ohio statewide leader and coordinator for the first ever National Pro Bono Celebration held in October of that year.

At the outset there was discussion about whether the Foundation would lead through a volunteer group such as a task force or committee, or whether the effort would be staff-led. Because the stakeholder organizations already had in place robust, collegial staff networks who worked together and met regularly – the pro bono professionals of the legal aid societies; the staffs of Ohio's six metropolitan bar associations; and the statewide Foundation, state bar association, and supreme court – the Celebration planning went forward as a staff-led initiative.

The Foundation, Ohio's IOLTA organization that also supports and enhances private attorney involvement at the legal aid societies, understood intimately that any new effort would have to be super-easy if the overworked staffs of its partner organizations were going to invest their time. In addition to being as painless as possible, the Foundation would have to help the partner organizations see benefits to participating: benefits to clients, to volunteer attorneys, and to the overall missions of their organizations.

To that end, the Foundation took prodigious advantage of the ready-made resources offered by the ABA.

Taking a cue from the roster of supreme court justices supporting the National Pro Bono Celebration, it asked Ohio's Chief Justice, and a federal judge known for dedication to encouraging pro bono, to act as honorary statewide chairs. The key to getting the Chief Justice and the federal court judge to say yes was identifying the position as "honorary," enabling the Foundation to say to each of them that accepting came with no commitments; the decision to participate in any National Pro Bono Celebration event was entirely at their discretion. When presented in this way, both jumped in without hesitation.

Once these important figures in the Ohio legal community were announced as honorary chairs, the Celebration took on credibility and organizations across the state began to build events around their involvement.

With the ABA's concept of the Celebration as a guide, the Foundation connected with its partner organizations via email and encouraged all to become involved by finding ways to use the Celebration as a tool to advance organizational goals. The Foundation repeated in each communication the three themes the ABA identified for the Celebration – to recognize the efforts of pro bono lawyers; to recruit more pro bono volunteers; and, to mobilize community support for pro bono.

The Foundation kept up regular email contact, repeating the Celebration themes and updating partner organizations with news from ABA and from organizations in other states, to build interest and to help organizations see the possibilities for using the Celebration to the advantage of the organization. It was exciting to watch as organizations adapted Celebration themes to their model; events and activities created were natural, easy, and familiar to their constituencies. Legal aid organizations that routinely offered brief advice clinics scheduled additional clinics in different venues; pro bono programs created volunteer recognition events; and bar associations offered continuing legal education training seminars, at no cost to attorneys who agreed to accept a pro bono case.

The Foundation took the resolutions and proclamations posted on the Celebration website and re-drafted them as for use by Ohio bar associations and municipalities. The resolution was an easy sell to the bar associations because adopting it required no commitment of resources, and it expressed affirmation for the core professional value of pro bono service, something for which the bar association boards were eager to be on record. The proclamations directed at municipalities were not used widely the first year of the Celebration, but were folded in later as support and interest in the Celebration developed and coverage in the mainstream media expanded.

Finally, the Foundation used its connections with the bar associations, legal aid societies, and courts to cajole everyone to send their schedule of events to the Foundation, which Foundation staff then uploaded to the National Pro Bono Celebration website. The Foundation then kept careful track of how many events were listed, and let the Ohio folks know how they were doing in comparison to other states. The Foundation did not encourage any entity to create events simply to increase the numbers of events or activities, but it took advantage of the strong competitive streak it knows to exist among attorneys! When it came time to plan for 2010, Ohio participants remembered being listed in a national directory and took on responsibility for ensuring that events were listed completely, accurately and early. The Foundation has not had to provide this support again.

In each year since 2009, Ohio's version of the National Pro Bono Celebration has expanded, but it has never become fancy. By taking a simple approach, Ohio has each year achieved attention in greater measure to the importance and value of pro bono legal services.

E. Jane Taylor, Esq. is the director for Pro Bono and Communications at the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation.