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June 15, 2013 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair...

By Mary K. Ryan, Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

I am delighted to begin my first "From the Chair..." column by thanking everyone who contributed to the recent success of the National Pro Bono Celebration week in late October. As we turn from those Pro Bono Week achievements, the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service looks forward to continuing its mission to generate momentum and spur innovation in the pro bono arena. There is much to be done, and in the coming months the Standing Committee's efforts will focus on several areas.

At the ABA Annual Meeting in August, the House of Delegates adopted an updated and revised version of the ABA's Standards for Programs Providing Civil Pro Bono Legal Services to Persons of Limited Means. The Standards have long been a touchstone for the pro bono and civil legal aid communities in structuring their efforts to most effectively serve clients on the socioeconomic margins. As the new Standards are rolled out, the ABA Center for Pro Bono will take the lead in providing technical assistance and education to our constituents.

We will also monitor and provide assistance around the many practice rule developments impacting the ability of lawyers to act as pro bono advocates. For instance, Kansas and Illinois have recently joined 37 other states which have some form of "Emeritus" pro bono rule forging a path for retired or inactive attorneys (such as stay–at home parents) to render pro bono service. Also seeking to harness the energy of senior lawyers – and let's not kid ourselves, we Boomers are moving quickly in that direction, and in large numbers – the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission last year rolled out a sophisticated Access to Justice Fellows program which places attorneys who are retired or moving into retirement with public interest organizations where the fellows serve clients in need. The Class of 2012–13 (seven attorneys) has completed its service and the Class of 2013–14 (12 attorneys) is just beginning its term.

We will continue maintaining resources and delivering technical assistance on efforts to encourage reporting, of pro bono data. At present, seven states require attorneys to document and report their pro bono work, and 12 states maintain a voluntary reporting program. Quite recently a debate on mandatory reporting surfaced in New York, where the judiciary ultimately decided to hold off for two years on making reported information about pro bono hours public. Meanwhile some states, such as South Carolina (which has a voluntary reporting program), are changing the means of reporting – going from paper to electronic reporting – in hopes of gathering more robust data.

Practice rule changes which make it easier for corporate counsel – who may often sit in jurisdictions in which they don't have a license – to perform pro bono in their home states are also spreading. Minnesota and Illinois have recently joined the ranks of states which have implemented such changes. Neighboring Wisconsin is considering such a move. Similarly, many states have already made it possible for out–of–state attorneys, corporate or otherwise, to perform in–state pro bono.

All of the preceding deals with today's attorneys rendering pro bono service. What about tomorrow's? Law schools continue to build their own pro bono infrastructures, powered by energetic students who wish to serve those in need and learn – by doing – the art and science of law practice.

The Standing Committee is participating in a very important conversation which started when New York became the first state to require pro bono service as a condition to become licensed for law practice. Our White Paper, "New York's 50–hour Preadmission Pro Bono Rule: Weighing the Potential Pros and Cons" explores the new rule's contours, inventories potential benefits and drawbacks, and reports on activity in other states that are pondering whether to follow New York's lead. While we have some concern with the New York rule's broad definition of "pro bono service," and what its departure from the definition used in Model Rule of Professional Conduct (MRPC) 6.1 may mean in the long term, we applaud Chief Judge Lippman and so many others who seek new means to narrow our nation's civil justice gap.

Closer to home, the Standing Committee is an active participant in dialogue regarding the law school accreditation standard which speaks to making pro bono opportunities available to law students. The ABA's Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is contemplating changes to the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools (a/k/a "law school accreditation standards"). The Standing Committee will seek to ensure that the Standards provide law schools with the flexibility they need to offer a broad array of pro bono opportunities to students, while also remaining closely tied to pro bono's core concept, embodied in MRPC 6.1, of rendering free legal services to persons of limited means.

And as always, the Standing Committee and the ABA Center for Pro Bono will promote communication among law schools as they create new, replicable pro bono programs, including those connected to medical–legal partnerships, projects serving veterans, and many others.

Finally, I hope you will attend the 2014 Equal Justice Conference taking place from May 1–3 in Portland, Oregon. The Equal Justice Conference brings together all components of the legal community to discuss equal justice issues as they relate to the delivery of legal services to the poor and low–income individuals in need of legal assistance. The 2014 Conference will focus on strengthening partnerships among the key players in the civil justice system. Through plenary sessions, workshops, networking opportunities and special programming, the Conference provides a wide range of learning and sharing experiences for all attendees.

I am honored, and very excited, to serve as Chair of the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. I owe an enormous debt to immediate past Chair Larry McDevitt, whose stewardship of the Committee was nigh on par with his extraordinary fly–fishing skill. Please share with me, or with Committee Counsel Steve Scudder, your ideas about how the Committee may serve you, the ABA membership, and of course the larger pro bono community. Through this communication we will all be best positioned to serve the myriad pro bono clients and causes who deserve our very best.