Few endeavors are better suited to the unique skills of senior lawyers than pro bono legal work on behalf of persons of limited economic means. Across the nation, lawyers whose careers have ranged from solo to large firm practice, from corporate to government work, and from the judiciary to the academic world are contributing their talents to the provision of legal services to low income and older persons in their communities.
Senior lawyers choose to do pro bono work for a variety of different reasons. Some of these reasons include a desire to continuing using legal skills after retirement, to learn about new areas of the law, to continue interacting with the legal community on a regular basis, or a commitment to public service.
While the reasons for doing pro bono work vary, however, the crushing need for legal representation at no cost does not. Experts estimate that as much as 80% of the legal needs of low income citizens go unmet. After spending many years perfecting their craft, senior lawyers are in a perfect position to help chip away at the unmet legal needs of low-income persons throughout this country.
Examples of Existing Senior Lawyer Pro Bono Projects
The Attorney Emeritus Program through the New York State Unified Court Systems is available for attorneys who are over age 55 who have a minimum of 10 years of experience. The Attorney Emeritus Program is a partnership among the courts, legal services providers, bar associations, and law schools. Emeritus attorneys volunteer with approved pro bono legal services program.
Senior Attorneys Initiative for Legal Services SAILS is a project of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center and the D.C. Access to Justice Commission. "The SAILS Project recruits District law firms to train and mobilize their senior lawyers who are, or will soon be, approaching a transitional phase in their careers as they begin to wind down their law practices."
Legal Aid Society of Cleveland Act 2 Program is crafted to allow senior lawyers who are scaling back their practice or retiring to engage in a variety of pro bono projects.
Another national program, the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP), has a stated mission "to mobilize the resources of senior attorneys to provide highly skilled volunteer legal assistance to local and international nonprofit organizations, academic institutions and governmental agencies for the purpose of advancing the rule of law, protecting human rights and promoting equitable economic development and opportunity worldwide."
Solutions to Perceived Barriers to Senior Lawyer Pro Bono Projects
Due to the significant cost of state bar memberships, many seniors change their bar status to inactive or simply let their bar memberships lapse altogether. In addition, some senior lawyers no longer live in the state where they were admitted. To address this problem, some states have created emeritus rules to allow lawyers licensed in other jurisdictions to gain limited admission to the bar of the new state to perform pro bono work. Emeritus rules also permit senior lawyers from a particular jurisdiction to obtain a limited license in that jurisdiction to perform pro bono work without paying their former licensing fees. At least 44 jurisdictions have emeritus practice rules.
For more information on emeritus practice rules, visit the ABA Commission on Law and Aging.
Many senior lawyers do not perform pro bono work because they do not carry personal malpractice insurance. However, to combat this very problem, many existing pro bono programs carry their own malpractice insurance for volunteers. Accordingly, a volunteer senior lawyer performing pro bono work through such a program is automatically covered against malpractice liability. In addition, if a senior lawyer wishes to perform pro bono work outside of insured programs, the senior lawyer can always choose to fund a personal malpractice insurance policy as well. Lawyers in need of malpractice insurance coverage for their pro bono activities should contact existing pro bono programs in their area to inquire about the existence of such coverage.
Office Space & Administrative Help
Senior lawyers hesitate to participate in pro bono work in some instances due to a lack of office space and administrative help. After years of practicing law in a firm setting, for example, a senior lawyer may no longer have access to many of the items he or she took for granted - supplies, clerical support, transportation, or simply a suitable address or phone number for work purposes.
Due to this hurdle to performing pro bono work, some programs partners with law firms to support senior lawyer pro bono by their retired lawyers through the provision of office space, supplies, and clerical support.
On the other hand, if a senior lawyer is not affiliated with a law firm or other entity willing to provide such support, not-for-profit institutions may offer this option as well. Some pro bono programs offer administrative help, letterhead and supplies, and other perks to volunteers in order to increase volunteer lawyer participation. Volunteers in need of office space and other administrative assistance should contact existing pro bono programs nearby, or local bar associations, for additional information on similar programs in their area.
Orientation, Training & Supervision
A lawyer's previous expertise can be a barrier to pro bono work by senior lawyers. If, for example, a lawyer has forty years of experience in corporate transactions, he or she might be reluctant to accept family law litigation cases pro bono.
Initially, it is important to point out that lawyers have done pro bono work in every area of the law. That said, however, the bulk of the need for a pro bono lawyer is in direct representation. Instead of viewing new areas of law as barrier to participation, however, senior lawyers may look at these new areas of law as an opportunity for learning more about the practice of law. Established pro bono programs in most communities provide excellent orientation, training and supervision of lawyer volunteers. Therefore, in such a setting, lawyers can feel comfortable that they are doing quality work in new areas of law to serve the public good.
Also, a lawyer need not serve exclusively on the receiving end of such training sessions. Instead, lawyers may use their wealth of experiences as practicing lawyers to serve as trainers or mentors to other lawyers and staff in a pro bono capacity through existing pro bono programs.
Some senior lawyers choose not to do pro bono work because they feel as though their schedule is not regular enough to allow for such work. However, if a volunteer lawyer can only participate in a limited number of cases due to frequent travel, other commitments, or a simple desire to retain a flexible schedule, participating in pro bono work through an established pro bono program can usually accommodate such a lifestyle. Established pro bono programs offer various pro bono opportunities ranging from direct representation in litigation or transactional matters to discrete tasks. The discrete tasks include brief advice and counsel, training volunteers and staff, mentoring, drafting community legal education materials or training materials, legislative advocacy, and co-counsel arrangements.
In addition, if a senior lawyer performs pro bono work through an emeritus program, a participating pro bono program will supervise the senior lawyer's work. Consequently, at least one other lawyer in the office will know the facts and status of each case the senior lawyer is working on, so that lawyer can cover for the senior lawyer if necessary.
Resources of Interest
- What Do You Do Now? Emeritus Pro Bono in Retirement
- Emeritus Attorney Programs: Best Practices and Lessons Learned
- Senior Lawyers Organizing & Volunteering: A National Profile
- ABA Senior Lawyers Division
- ABA Commission on Law and Aging
- International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP)
For more information on Senior Lawyer pro bono, please email the Center for Pro Bono.
Updated March 2020