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July 01, 2014

Survey of Emeritus and Pro Bono Practice Programs: Assessing Participation

David M. Godfrey

(Note: The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal Vol. 35, Issue 6.)



Emeritus and pro bono practice rules ease some of the licensing burden for retired or inactive attorneys who agree to limit their practice to pro bono cases. The goal of the rules is to encourage pro bono work by attorneys who might otherwise be discouraged by the burden of maintaining a law license for their volunteer work.

Seeing a gap in the research on these rules, the ABA’s Commission on Law and Aging began compiling details of the rules adopted by each state about a decade ago. The chart that resulted from this research—the State Emeritus Pro Bono Practice Rules Chart—has been hosted on the ABA website and updated periodically so as to provide an easy-to-understand snapshot of how state approaches to pro bono practice rules compare.


Who May Practice Under these Rules?

The original focus of these rules was to encourage pro bono service by retired attorneys; thus, many rules refer to emeritus status. A review of the current rules finds that 6 of the 38 jurisdictions limit participation to retired attorneys while the other 32 states have adopted a broader definition that includes both retired and inactive attorneys. Inactive attorneys are those who are not actively engaged in the practice of law for compensation.


What’s New in 2014: Quantifying Impact

Though the Commission has been tracking the development of these rules for nearly a decade, focus was on the details of the rules, not on the impact the rules were having on the number of attorney volunteers and the number of hours volunteered. The Commission has fielded requests from both legal aid programs and state bars for the number of attorneys licensed under these rules and the number of hours of service provided. Until now, a resource to begin to answer these questions did not exist.

In the summer of 2014, the Commission updated information on the rules, and also collected data on the participation under the rules. In June, the Commission distributed the link to an online survey to the 33 jurisdictions for which email contact could be determined.

  • Data was reported by 14 states.
  • Three states responded that they did not collect data or were unable to report.
  • One state reported that its emeritus rule was not tied to pro bono participation (and thus the information on that rule has been removed from our State Emeritus Pro Bono Practice Rules chart).
  • The remaining states did not respond.


Survey Results

The raw data collected from the 14 states that responded to the survey are displayed in the accompanying table.

The distribution of the data is interesting in that the majority (10 out of 14) report a modest number of attorneys licensed under their rule. The remaining four states reported high levels of participation. California, with 89 participants, reported the highest number of hours at 5,000. A modest number of volunteers can make a huge difference if the volunteers are actively providing pro bono services.

Massachusetts was the only state that differentiated between retired and inactive attorneys in their reported numbers. For their 30 total participants, 22 were retired and 8 were inactive.

Slightly more than half (20 of 38) of the jurisdictions allow pro bono participation by attorneys licensed in another state. North Carolina reported total participation of 20, with 7 of those being retired or inactive attorneys licensed in North Carolina and 13 being attorneys licensed in other states.

Number of Attorneys Practicing Under the Rule Total Hours Reported
North Dakota 1 -
Idaho 2 -
Minnesota 2 -
Wyoming 3 -
Alaska 5 -
Montana 5 220
North Carolina 20 (7 retired or inactive, 13 out-of-state) -
Texas 23 -
Massachusetts 30 (22 retired, 8 inactive) -
California 89 5,000
Washington 117 2,207
Hawaii 540 -
New York 845 -
Arizona 918 -


Annual Pro Bono Hours Reported

Three states provided us with the number of hours that attorneys licensed under these provisions reported. This is limited data. The hours reported ranged from 220 hours in Montana, with 5 participating attorneys, to 5,000 hours in California, with 89 participating attorneys.

New York recently adopted an Emeritus rule and participants will not report their hours of service until they apply for a renewal of their licenses. When this data becomes available, it will be interesting to see the volunteer hours reported under this state’s fast-growing program.

The total hours currently reported is not enough to project outcome or impact in other states. It does show that these programs can generate meaningful pro bono hours. At the low end, the hours are more then 10% of the time a full-time legal aid attorney would work in a year; at the high end, the hours are equivalent to adding 2.5 full-time legal aid attorneys per year. For small programs running on limited budgets, this volunteered time is valuable.



There are a handful of observations to be drawn from this data:

  • The majority of states draw modest participation.
  • Those states reporting total number of hours reported a significant number of hours.
  • States known for retirees report high levels of participation (Hawaii and Arizona).
  • The rules have the potential to allow for large numbers of volunteers. New York’s program, launched in 2010, now has 2014’s second largest number of reported participants.



The need for services by legal aid and pro bono programs far exceeds available resources. A modest number of dedicated volunteers can make a real difference in helping deliver legal assistance to the most vulnerable clients. The burden of creating the rules and administering the license status can easily be offset by the hours of volunteer service of a handful of dedicated pro bono volunteers. ■

David M. Godfrey

About the Authors:

David M. Godfrey is a Senior Attorney at the ABA Commission on Law and Aging in Washington, DC.