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May 22, 2019

Update on Emeritus Pro Bono Practice Rules: What You Need to Know

(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 40, Issue 5.)

The Commission on Law and Aging recently co-sponsored an ABA Free CLE program, “How to Navigate Emeritus Pro Bono Practice Rules,” along with the ABA Senior Lawyers Division, Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Services. Emeritus pro bono practice rules waive some of the usual licensing burdens for attorneys who limit their practice to pro bono only.

The rules are intended to serve as an incentive for attorneys who are retired or inactive to continue the profession’s commitment to providing free or low-cost legal service to clients unable to pay. At least 44 jurisdictions 1 have emeritus pro bono practice rules.
Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Civil legal aid programs turn away about half of clients who qualify due to a lack of resources. Pro Bono programs offer lawyers an opportunity to give back to our communities.
  2. Rules vary from state to state. Each emeritus pro bono practice rule is unique. Most states allow attorneys who are retired to participate, but increasingly, attorneys who are inactive or engaged in work other than the practice of law are eligible under the rules. About half of all states allow attorneys in good standing and licensed in other states to become pro bono volunteers. Most states require the work be done through a qualified legal service provider, though the definition of qualified provider varies widely from state to state. In every state, Legal Service Corporation-funded legal aid programs are qualified providers.
  3. In many states the rules apply not only to attorneys who are retired, but also to attorneys who are not actively practicing law for a living. This includes attorneys doing work outside the practice of law, and also to family caregivers.
  4. Some opportunities don’t require you to leave your office or home. Technology is changing the practice of law. Programs such as ABA Free Legal Answers and legal aid hotlines connect clients with pro bono attorneys online and by phone. These innovative models limit the attorney’s commitment and deliver much needed legal help to clients.
  5. Emeritus pro bono practice rules are not the answer for every attorney who wants to contribute to his or her community. Legal aid providers are limited by funding on the issues they can take on, the types of cases they can represent clients in, and the clients they can represent. An attorney who wants to help set up small businesses or do public interest class-action litigation may find that no qualified host organization is engaged in that kind of work. That does not mean these attorneys can’t do pro bono work; they just need to follow the usual licensing process to do so.
The webinar with CLE credits was recorded and will be available without charge to ABA members on the ABA website.
143 states and the District of Columbia, with a proposed rule expected to become effective in January 2020 in Missouri.

David Godfrey

Senior Attorney, Commission on Law & Aging

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