On January 5, 2017, the National Law Journal reported that the law school class of 2016 performed more than 2.2 million hours of pro bono while they were law students. The National Law Journal valued that time at more than $52 million dollars. This information was compiled by the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) and it is the first time that a nationwide student pro bono survey has been conducted.
Professors Blaze, Morgan, and I present a leadership course each fall through the University of Tennessee College of Law Leadership Institute in which we devote an entire class to pro bono. As professors involved in our law school community, we have seen firsthand that pro bono work done by law students gives them a taste of the joy that pro bono can bring once they become lawyers. We like to remind law students that when they take their oath as a lawyer, they will likely be asked to affirm that they will follow their state's rules of professional conduct.
In most states, the Preamble to those rules states that a lawyer should act as a "public citizen" and that the lawyer should "seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice, and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession."
The Preamble goes on to say,
A lawyer should be mindful of deficiencies in the administration of justice and of the fact that the poor and sometimes persons who are not poor cannot afford adequate legal assistance. Therefore all lawyers should devote professional time and resources and use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice for all those who because of economic or social barriers cannot afford or secure adequate legal counsel. A lawyer should aid the legal profession in pursuing these objectives and should help the Bar regulate itself in the public interest.
As Professor Phyllis Goldfarb recently wrote, "The future value of law students' three-year sojourn will require law schools to teach less about what the law is and more about what the law does and what lawyers do with law."
As of 2016, 42 law schools have a pro bono graduation requirement, 126 have a formal voluntary pro bono program, and 16 have independent, student pro bono group projects—although the definition of "pro bono" varies from school to school. Most law students are eager to help. We certainly need it. Over 60 million Americans—one in five—qualify for federally funded legal assistance. Federally funded legal services programs, at today's funding levels, serve at best less than 20% of the legal need.
In our experience, law student pro bono can also provide a win-win-win-win situation for the public, for law schools, for students, for alumni, and for clients. Law schools have a strong interest in involving their alumni in the life of their law school. Alumni enjoy going back to the law school and working with law students. Law students place a high value on working with practicing lawyers, especially helping real clients in need. Everybody wins in this scenario: the law student, the law school, the alumni, and especially the clients. Moreover, pro bono done by law students gives law schools the opportunity to collaborate with the colleges of health, social work, and education on their campuses, to name a few.
Professor Blaze has observed that the biggest challenge facing law schools is "assuming the mantle of leadership." It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of support for student pro bono from the Dean's office, from the faculty, and, of course, from clinical educators. Productive collaboration opportunities abound. Collaborations between law schools and Legal Services Corporation agencies, community legal centers, and other direct providers of legal services to low income households can be a wonderfully productive way for these direct providers to access additional resources, and for the law schools and the students to be more engaged in their community serving practicing lawyers and actual clients.
But law schools have to step up. We can all be rightfully proud that most have done so. We can also be encouraged that when law schools have stepped up, the students have joined in the cause. Our experience with this new generation of law students is encouraging. Most are taking on difficult academic work, deferring employment, and taking on debt—at least in part because they want to help their communities and provide equal access to justice to those in need.
As Professor Goldfarb wrote, they are eager to learn "what lawyers do with the law."
And as one of our Leadership Institute students wrote, "I am done with waiting to build my legacy. I am starting now." This is a journey that feeds the soul of the student, the faculty members who work with them, and the lawyers who make the journey with them.