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Vol. 38, No. 2

Many ways to lend a hand: Bar associations innovate, collaborate to support pro bono

by Robert J. Derocher

Phone banks, web chats, pro bono emeritus programs, law school students answering legal questions, CLE linked to pro bono, lawyers in libraries: If it sounds like there are lots of pro bono efforts going on simultaneously in South Carolina, you’re right. And that suits Cindy Coker, director of the Pro Bono Program for the South Carolina Bar, just fine.

“'One size fits all' doesn’t work for T-shirts, and it doesn’t work in the delivery of legal services, either,” she explains. “We are constantly looking for ways to allow lawyers to participate in pro bono and low bono.” (Low bono is a way to describe reduced-fee services for those of moderate means.)

As bars across the country joined the ABA in celebrating Pro Bono Week—and Pro Bono Month, in some places—in October, many also reflected Coker’s philosophy.  Increasingly, leaders say, bars are launching new pro bono initiatives, reinvigorating existing offerings, and collaborating with other likeminded organizations as they seek to lure more lawyers into the pro bono fold. 

These varied approaches come as the profession grapples with employment struggles, shifting demographics,  and more critical analyses of legal education—all against the backdrop of increasing demand for legal services for the poor. Leaders of bar pro bono programs say they’re keeping a close eye on trends, from state mandates to nationwide initiatives, in an effort to meet the ongoing need for pro bono services even as the profession continues to evolve.

Different options for different lawyers

For many who coordinate pro bono opportunities, multiple choices are often the best choices when it comes to encouraging participation. “We try to make pro bono as easy as possible for attorneys, with as many different ideas as possible,” says Monika Kalra Varma, executive director of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. “We’re constantly looking at ways to expand our reach.”

About a thousand D.C. Bar members provided pro bono services to more than 20,000 people in the District of Columbia last year, Varma says, through a variety of programs, including: pro se counsel, a senior attorneys initiative, community legal clinics, and a project that provides employment, policy, and tax assistance to nonprofit organizations in the city. In an attempt to spread pro bono beyond the city’s large law firms, the bar will establish a new working group in January designed to introduce more senior attorneys, solo/small-firm practitioners, and recent law school graduates to pro bono programs and training, Varma notes.

The D.C. Bar is also reinvigorating the Pro Bono Partnership Network, a group of representatives from more than 100 law firms, law schools, and government agencies that meets with legal service organizations in the city to discuss current and potential legal needs, she adds.

In North Carolina, programs such as Lawyer on the Line, Wills for Heroes (and the Military), Done in a Day, Law-Related Education, and North Carolina Lawyers for Entrepreneurs Assistance Program attracted more than 750 attorneys to pro bono service last year, according to Mary Horowitz, director of Public Service and Pro Bono Activities for the North Carolina Bar Association Foundation

One of the most critical tasks for bars involved in promoting pro bono, she adds, is helping lawyers find opportunities that are best suited to them. “We’ve been working on a slew of projects that address lawyers’ needs,” she says. “Bar associations need to help find their members’ passions.”

Sharon Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (which is separate from but affiliated with the Maryland State Bar Association), says programs such as the Family Mediation Project, the Consumer Protection Project, and the Veterans Benefits Project have been popular with Maryland lawyers. But perhaps none was as popular as the Foreclosure Prevention Project, launched in 2008 in response to the recession-driven housing crisis. “The court asked us for 500 attorneys, and we got 1,000,” she recalls.

The multitude of choices in South Carolina—several involving short-term commitments—has been key in keeping a larger and more diverse group of lawyers interested in pro bono, Coker says. And it’s an ongoing process. “We need to find ways that allow attorneys to do short tasks, so they’re not tied down for years,” she believes. “It allows them to help more often.”

Trying new ideas

Finding successful pro bono programs that engage lawyers while helping people in need takes a desire to try new initiatives, several leaders say.

“I love pilot programs,” says Jayne Reardon, executive director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. “You have to be willing to do pilot programs.” Reardon works with bars and other organizations throughout the state on pro bono and access to justice initiatives.

In Illinois, for example, a pilot program is in the works in at least three locations that would bring together judges, lawyers, and social workers to assess pro bono needs in their communities, Reardon says.  She is also monitoring incubator programs, such as one recently developed through the Chicago Bar Foundation that is aimed at helping new law school graduates provide legal services to low-income people.

Combining two major issues confronting the profession—unemployed new lawyers and the unmet legal needs of the poor—is also a focus for new ideas on the national front, as ABA President Jim Silkenat’s Legal Access Job Corps initiative demonstrates.  His hope is to match primarily young unemployed and underemployed lawyers with low- and moderate-income citizens who need them.

“It seems like a natural fit,” he says. “Everyone we’ve talked to hopes there is a way to bring these [issues] together. It’s generated more excitement than I expected.  It’s a ripe topic.” Silkenat has appointed a task force to further examine the issue and to develop potential implementation plans.

Through its Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, the ABA is also developing an online resource center to highlight programs across the country that bring together newly admitted lawyers and people with unmet legal needs.

While Silkenat believes the national stature of the ABA is critical to generating widespread interest—and ultimately, success—in the initiative, he also anticipates a multipronged approach that “builds on the local experience,” he says, pointing to initiatives from the State Bar of South Dakota and the University of Miami School of Law.

“I’m very optimistic we can make a difference,” he adds. “Hopefully, we can produce a crop of lawyers interested in public service.”

Changing the rules

A recent initiative in Silkenat’s home state, New York, that has sparked both positive and negative reaction is the requirement that new lawyers complete 50 hours of pro bono service before they are licensed to practice. In a white paper released in October, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service called it “a groundbreaking development in law practice regulation.” New York is the first state with such a requirement, though four other states have looked closely at similar requirements or have moved forward with them.

The 50-hour requirement, approved by the state’s Court of Appeals, has been met with stiff resistance in many quarters in New York state’s legal community. The voluntary New York State Bar Association has taken no formal position on the requirement, but a survey of more than 400 members found two-thirds of them opposed to the mandate.  And while the ABA white paper praised New York’s chief judge for “innovation and creative approaches,” it also recommended significant changes before the requirement is fully implemented.

While not every bar or state is looking at such sweeping changes, many are examining whether current rules should be amended, or new rules should be adopted. For example, the 8,500-member Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association plans to lobby the state of Pennsylvania to develop emeritus rules that would allow and encourage retired, inactive attorneys to take on pro bono cases. In Maryland, the Pro Bono Resource Center is working with the state bar and other bars and organizations to amend state supreme court practice rules to give more pro bono opportunities to public sector attorneys and corporate lawyers, who are often prohibited or severely restricted from pro bono.

Not stealing . . . sharing

As bar associations, foundations, and access to justice organizations move forward with expanding pro bono plans, many are doing it with more help than in the past—not only from each other, but also from community and social service organizations.

“There’s more collaboration right now, and that’s in part due to the changes in the practice of law and the economy,” Reardon says.  “Maybe there can’t be an overall [national] strategy, but there needs to be at least some coordination and sharing of information.”

For Cindy Coker in South Carolina and Mary Horowitz in North Carolina, that sharing of ideas and information is standard practice. “I’m pretty good at stealing,” Coker laughs, referring to her adaptation of North Carolina’s Lawyer on the Line program for South Carolina. “There is not enough time to reinvent the wheel. There is a growing number of people who need assistance.”

Such sharing is actively encouraged by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service, says Mary Ryan, its chair. Getting bar leaders together through groups such as the National Association of Bar Executives, National Conference of Bar Presidents, and National Conference of Bar Foundations to talk about successes—and failures—in pro bono programs is important, she says. “It’s not stealing someone else’s idea,” Ryan notes. “It’s there for the taking.”

Another key to success, she adds, is the increased dialogue between bars and social service organizations working cooperatively to build effective pro bono programs. The Boston Bar Association, she says, has been working with Quincy (Mass.) Community Action Programs on a program to help low-income tenants facing eviction. “It’s very much on lawyers’ radar to work with service providers in communities,” she believes.

Such bar/community interaction has also been successful and continues to grow in the District of Columbia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and other areas across the country.

Another idea is to work not just with individual bar members, but also with local law firms. “We try to match a firm’s interests with areas of need,” says Barbara Griffin, coordinator for the Allegheny County Bar Foundation’s Pro Bono Center. “I am, in effect, the pro bono coordinator for many of the law firms around town.” The center currently lists more than 50 organizations and programs offering pro bono opportunities.

“You need to energize the stakeholders—get everybody on board,” Griffin notes. “You also have to be collaborative and be flexible. Not every program has to work in the same way.”

Also vital to continued growth in pro bono programs is the leadership and support of the bar members themselves—in particular, bar leaders. Horowitz says that kind of support has been instrumental in the success of programs such as Lawyer on the Line. “Getting bar leaders to talk it up and endorse it was huge,” she says.

A critical role for the bar

With resources spread thin government agencies, courts, social service organizations and law firms, cooperative efforts with bar associations providing support can be critical, Ryan adds.

“Bar associations can provide the infrastructure and serve as a go-between,” she says. “It takes continual and sustained effort to have the right infrastructure in place.”

And with so many pro bono programs, pilot programs, ideas, and interactions already in place and under development, leaders say, that ongoing support and effort is likely to be more important than ever.