Judges frequently write letters to attorneys encouraging participation in pro bono activities. "Opt-In" letters are letters written by judges that invite attorneys to participate in pro bono activities (see Alaska, Maryland, New York and Texas). "Opt-Out" letters are letters written by judges that inform attorneys that they have been assigned pro bono work, and are expected to perform such work unless they inform the court that they are unable to provide the requested assistance (see Montana). Also see ABA Formal Opinion 470, which addresses procedures for judicial letter writing to encourage pro bono services.
Opt-In Letter: Letter from Chief Justice Dana Fabe to Members of the Alaska Bar In July 2002, urged members to consider volunteering their time to represent a client pro bono. Included with the letter was a self-addressed registration card for the lawyer to return.
Opt-In: Letter from Judge Dana Mark Levitz of the Circuit Court of Baltimore County to Area Attorneys in April 1997, asked attorneys to handle one pro bono case per year through the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. Judge Levitz provided spaces for the attorney to check-off, communicating their wish to either volunteer for a case or to notify the judge that they are unable to take a case at the present time.
Other type of letter: Letter from the Judges of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District Court of Maryland to Members of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in 2000, urging attorneys to represent a client pro bono on behalf of the Maryland Volunteer Legal Service (MVLS). The letter advises the attorney that "[a]s a member of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, you have indicated your willingness to accept a pro bono bankruptcy case."
Opt-Out: In March of 2009, The Judges of Montana's 4th and 21st Judicial Districts sent a letter to local attorneys urging them to participate in the Western Montana Bar Association Pro Bono Program. The letter informed the recipient that as an active attorney in the area, they will automatically be placed on the Pro Bono Program list. Declining participation involves completing an Opt-Out Form.
Opt-In: Letter from David Ritter, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of New York, and Francis A. Nicholai, Administrative Judge to New York's Ninth Judicial District to Attorneys in Westchester and Putnam Counties, in 2000 encourages lawyers in Westchester and Putnam counties to join the Volunteer Program of Westchester/Putnam Legal Services as a volunteer attorney.
Texas Supreme Court
Opt-In: The Supreme Court of Texas included a letter in the State Bar's Dues statement encouraging lawyers to contribute 50 hours of pro bono service per year in addition to making a financial contribution to Texas Access to Justice.
Several organizations, including the Conference of Chief Justices and the ABA House of Delegates, have passed resolutions encouraging judges to take an active role in the promotion of pro bono. In addition, many courts have passed resolutions of their own encouraging pro bono participation by members of the bar. See examples below.
In 2006, the ABA House of Delegates adopted Resolution 121C which urges "federal, state and territorial courts to develop programs, in collaboration with state and local bar associations and pro bono programs and legal services offices, to encourage, facilitate and recognize pro bono representation of indigent parties in civil cases." Furthermore, Resolution 121C asks "courts to provide opportunities for the lawyer employees to participate in pro bono and public service activities consistent with applicable federal, state, local and territorial laws and regulations and applicable rules of professional conduct."
In February of 1997, the Conference on Chief Justices adopted Resolution VII which states that "the members of the Conference of Chief Justices should promote broader access for people unable to afford legal services and should encourage the legal profession to increase pro bono efforts." In furtherance of these goals, the resolution asked members of the Conference to consider "establishing a statewide committee of judges, bar leaders, legal services providers and community leaders to plan and implement methods of increasing the delivery of civil legal services; and encouraging judges to recruit lawyers to do pro bono work, participate in events to recognize lawyers who do pro bono work, consider special procedural or scheduling accommodations for lawyers who are volunteering their services," and "act in an advisory capacity to pro bono programs."
The Access to and Fairness in the Courts Committee of the Conference of Chief Justices, Resolution 23
On January 25, 2001, the Access to and Fairness in the Courts Committee of the Conference of Chief Justices approved Resolution 23. The Resolution, entitled "Leadership to Promote Equal Justice," encourages members to establish partnerships with state and local bar organizations, legal service providers and others to:
- Remove impediments to the access to the justice system, including physical, economic, psychological and language barriers; and
- Develop viable and effective plans, to establish or increase public funding and support for civil legal services for individuals and families who have no meaningful access to the justice system; and
- Expand the types of assistance available to self- represented litigants, including exploring the role of non-attorneys.
On July 14, 2009, Circuit and District Court Judges in Alabama signed a resolution commending members of the State Bar for providing legal services to "society's most vulnerable members," and recognizing October 25-31, 2009 as Pro Bono Week. Furthermore, the resolution urges "all Alabamians to recognize the contributions of our legal community in helping those most in need."
Daniel T. Eisman, Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, joined B. Lynn Winmill, Chief District Judge of the U.S. District Court and Terrence R. White, President of the Idaho Bar Association in issuing a Joint Resolution on Pro Bono. The Resolution urges "law firms, corporate law departments, and governmental law offices to adopt pro bono policies and procedures to engage all lawyers in pro bono and public service activities that will increase access to equal justice."
In addition, the Resolution requested that the Courts and the Bar shall establish a Pro Bono Commission, comprised of no more than 20 members including: members of the Idaho Supreme Court and U.S. District Court, a representative of the Office of the Idaho Attorney General; a representative of the University of Idaho College of Law, senior representatives of at least three Idaho law firms, a representative of the Idaho Legal Aid Services, a representative of the Idaho Law Foundation; and representative of the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program, with the responsibility to:
- Encourage larger law firms, corporate law departments and government law offices to maximize the involvement of attorneys in pro bono services without adverse effect on the compensation or advancement of pro bono volunteers
- Explore the development of means and incentives to encourage and support attorneys in providing services to those who are unable to pay for legal services but are engaged in adversarial proceedings where basic human needs are at stake.
Judges have implemented special procedures to encourage and support pro bono in their courtrooms. See examples below.
The Missouri Court system has developed a “virtual desktop” to support Missouri attorneys providing pro bono legal services to needy persons. The “virtual desktop” includes several tools for pro bono attorneys, including information on joining the Missouri pro bono listserv group, information on malpractice coverage for pro bono attorneys and information on providing limited representation or “unbundled services.”
In 2004, Chicago Lawyer Magazine profiled Judge Sheldon C. Garber, supervising judge of Cook County Circuit Court's forcible entry and detainer section. Judge Garber has established a two-pronged method of encouraging pro bono: Providing encouragement and eliminating obstacles.
First, he focuses on the needs of litigants by asking the judges in the eviction courtrooms to open their calls with a statement advising the people waiting for their cases that they have a right to counsel. Then, if the litigants tell the court they can't afford an attorney, they are provided with a list of legal service programs. Judge Garber tries to publicly recognize and thank volunteer attorneys who appear before him. He lets them know that the court appreciates their services -- to their clients, of course, but more importantly, to the court and to the legal system.
Furthermore, Judge Garber eliminates obstacles by attempting to streamline the process for volunteer attorneys. Trying to create a "user-friendly" courtroom for pro bono, he strives, when possible, to call volunteers' cases first.
Pro Bono Summits
Chief Justice’s Pro Bono Summit: This meeting calls together volunteer lawyers, bar association leaders, legal aid representatives and members of the judiciary to discuss Virginia lawyers’ donation of professional services to persons who are unable to afford them. The discussion includes results of current pro bono programs and plans and goals for the future.
Pro Bono Isn’t Just for Attorneys: How to Organize a Judicial Pro Bono Summit—and Some Ideas on What Judges Can Do Themselves
Judges participate in and assist with recognition of volunteer attorneys in a variety of ways: publications, recognition programs, and special events. See examples below.
First Judicial District of Pennsylvania
On its website, the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania recognizes attorneys who have provided pro bono services in the Philadelphia Courts by placing them on a Pro Bono Roll of Honor. Attorneys become members of the Roll of Honor through a self-nomination process whereby attorneys submit their names along with a log of their pro bono services.
The Colorado Supreme Court has established a program to recognize attorneys who provide pro bono legal services. Under the program, the Colorado Supreme Court, through its website and through The Colorado Lawyer magazine, recognizes solo practitioners and in house counsel groups who inform the court of their voluntary commitment to achieving the goal of 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year. The Colorado Supreme Court also recognizes those law firms, solo practitioners, and in house counsel groups who inform the court that they achieved the 50 hour goal achieved the Commitment’s goal averaged among the Colorado licensed attorneys within the organization, prorated for part time attorneys.
United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois sponsors an awards ceremony recognizing pro bono and public interest service before the court. Awards for Excellence in Pro Bono and Public Interest Service are presented to area attorneys for their contributions in helping those most in need of assistance through pro bono and public interest work before the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's Adams Pro Bono Publico Awards
The Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court holds the annual Adams Pro Bono Publico Awards Program. The Program seeks to identify and honor individual lawyers, small and large law firms, government attorney offices, corporate law departments and other institutions in the legal profession that have enhanced the human dignity of others by improving or delivering volunteer legal services to our Commonwealth's poor and disadvantaged.
Several states have created training manuals on the topic of judicial encouragement of pro bono. See examples below.
2005 Alaska Judicial Conference
A CLE program entitled Judicial Ethics: Pro Bono Publico Options for Judges was offered at the 2005 Alaska Judicial Conference. The program included a mock-game show, 'Wheel of Pro Bono Fortune," that presented the participants with three questions about pro bono to be answered based on a given scenario. Participants were also provided with a "Quick Reference Chart" that placed potential pro bono conflicts alongside the relevant canons. In addition, participants were asked to brainstorm a list of potential activities that judges could engage in or were already involved in to promote pro bono. A copy of this list of judicial pro bono commitments/ideas can be found here.
In 2009, the California Administrative Office of the Courts' Judicial Conference published a Pro Bono Toolkit focusing on judicial encouragement of pro bono legal services. The tool kit includes helpful tips for judges and judicial employees wishing to encourage pro bono work such as advice on how to thank lawyers for their pro bono work, methods of publicly encouraging pro bono work and tips on granting attorneys who provide pro bono work preferential docket treatment.
The California Judicial Branch has published a guide entitled “A Few Key Things that Judicial Officers Can Do to Encourage Attorneys to Provide Pro Bono Services.”
Judges' Tool Kit on Pro Bono Legal Assistance provides Missouri judges the resources to encourage pro bono legal representation.
Montana Judges Guide to Pro Bono
The Montana Bar Association has created a “Judges Guide to Pro Bono.” The Guide addresses many common questions that judges may have with respect to judicial promotion of pro bono.
Speeches and Presentations
Judges and others frequently speak to members of the bar about the importance of pro bono in their communities. See examples below.
Promoting Pro Bono from the Bench in Minnesota By Lindsay Davis, Access to Justice Director, Minnesota State Bar Association and Steve Marchese, Pro Bono Development Directory, Minnesota State Bar Association, June 2014
New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s 2014 State of the Judiciary included extensive comments on pro bono work in New York, including proposed future programs.
Updated April 2020