chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
February 17, 2016 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair

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

Measuring Pro Bono



“It is often said that we value what we can measure, but it might be more accurate to say that we measure what we value . . . ” This sentiment, or some variation of it, has been said often enough to become a new cliché. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why there is a notable growing interest in the use of metrics to better understand the needs, uses, and effectiveness of legal services to low income populations, but there are many sound reasons for doing so. While anecdotal and personal views of pro bono activity certainly have a place in understanding and communicating about the meaning and nuances of pro bono, applying data collection and analytical methodologies allows us to see beyond the boundaries of our individual lenses. By aggregating and measuring population trends we are better able to make informed decisions about program and policy changes in the pro bono arena. Together, these perspectives— individual and aggregate—can help us gain a more complete picture of the pro bono landscape.

One of the charges of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service is to review, evaluate, and encourage pro bono activity by attorneys, law firms, bar associations, corporate law departments, and other legal providers. To this end, the Committee commissioned its first national survey of attorneys in 2005, with a goal of establishing an accurate and credible baseline for measuring pro bono activity. With subsequent iterations in 2009 and 2013, the Committee has provided the only national-level tracking of pro bono activity to date.

In its most recent iteration, Supporting Justice III (2013) the Committee gained particular insight about the pro bono activity of America’s lawyers. With the feedback of almost 3,000 attorneys, we discovered that the legal profession remains committed to pro bono as both a professional responsibility and as a way to meet the legal needs of the poor. We learned, too, that attorneys are under serious time constraints, that not all legal employers are pro bono-friendly, and that there are multiple competing personal and professional obligations that inhibit lawyer pro bono engagement. Importantly, though, for many attorneys there are specific programmatic and policy supports that can be offered to offset these deterrents.

Survey findings confirmed that attorneys generally do want to do pro bono, but need help removing the barriers that they experience to make the pro bono experience more accessible and tailored to their individual needs. The Committee’s surveys have shown us that, given the diversity of the profession, what motivates one attorney may not motivate another. Differences in the attorney population that may be manifested by region, cultural affiliations, practice type, and so forth need to be further explored.

In an effort to determine the value in collecting and measuring pro bono activity at the state level, the Committee worked with stakeholders in Nebraska in 2014 to modify the Supporting Justice survey for statewide distribution. The results of this survey, published in 2015,[3] revealed some Nebraska-specific trends that set it apart from the national data set. As a result of these findings, the Nebraska State Bar Association, the Nebraska Supreme Court Committee on Self-Represented Litigation, and Legal Aid of Nebraska are working together to generate and implement programmatic changes that will be more responsive to the Nebraska attorney population.

The Committee is now exploring how to make this survey tool available to other states and provide analytical support in order to encourage state participation. The success of the Nebraska survey in terms of revealing local trends and generating new program ideas have convinced the Committee that state level pro bono surveys may provide a uniquely useful view for pro bono programs. The opportunity to really understand a state’s attorney population can be invaluable for generating ideas for outreach, program supports, and reward systems. Building on individual views and the national perspective, we are excited to see what information these surveys generate. For more information on conducting one of these surveys in your state, contact April Faith-Slaker. On behalf of the Committee, I strongly urge you to do so—conducting a statewide survey should be a valuable tool in building pro bono participation.

Finally, the Committee is proud to announce the completion of a study of emeritus pro bono rules, conducted by David Godfrey, senior attorney with the ABA Commission on Law and Aging. This study provides an overview of state rule adoptions for encouraging inactive and retired attorney participation in pro bono. It also evaluates the effectiveness of pro bono practice rules in terms of volunteer recruitment and hours of service performed. The survey demonstrates that these practice rules expand pro bono activity and engage lawyers who might not otherwise participate. For more information, see the article by David Godfrey in this issue of Dialogue. The results are expected to be released this spring.

On a personal note, this will be my last column for Dialogue as Committee Chair. I’ve been privileged to serve as a member of this Committee since 2010 and as Chair since 2013. It’s been a pleasure to work with all the members of the Committee during this time and I want to thank each and every one of them, along with the terrific ABA staff who supports the Committee and the ABA Center for Pro Bono, ably led by Steve Scudder, Committee Counsel, and Cheryl Zalenski, Center Director. But I must also thank the many colleagues in other ABA entities and outside the ABA who work with the Committee—and I wouldn’t dream of trying to name them all—to unleash the power of pro bono to increase access to justice for low income individuals in our society. I hope to have many more opportunities to continue our work in the years to come.