October 05, 2011

Oral Remarks of Judge Judith M. Billings - Center for Professional Responsibility

Oral Remarks of Judge Judith M. Billings,

Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

Judge Judith M. Billings, Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, was the last speaker of the day. She raised the concern of the Standing Committee of the impact of multidisciplinary practice on the ethical responsibility of individual lawyers to perform pro bono service. Model Rule 6.1, adopted in 37 states, sets an aspirational goal that each lawyer attempt to perform 50 hours of delivery of legal services to those of limited means; every state has some rule provision regarding a lawyer’s responsibility to provide pro bono service. She acknowledged that in most instances it is the institution where the lawyer works that allows the lawyer to perform pro bono services, that is, affords them the time and the resources and doesn’t hold it against them as far as the bottom line. She asked that the Commission consider the effect on pro bono of the multidisciplinary firm or organization being run by nonlawyers who have no knowledge of legal ethics and may not be particularly supportive of professional responsibility. Mr. Wander commented that the profession probably isn’t doing a good enough job in the pro bono area so multidisciplinary practices provide perhaps an opportunity rather than a detriment. The Judge said the Standing Committee has been more successful in recent years in getting transactional and government lawyers involved in pro bono activity. Judge Friedman offered that since Rule 6.1 is aspirational anyway the rule could be amplified to say that lawyers who are practicing in nontraditional law firm settings have a special obligation to educate and persuade their nonlawyer colleagues of the importance of the lawyer pro bono obligation and it could encourage lawyer members of the MDP to live up to this obligation. Judge Billings was enthusiastic about this idea. Dean Powell commented that with the shift from lawyers in law firms and law associations where a part of the ethos is a pro bono obligation to an environment where the prevailing ethos is pragmatism, efficiency and profits there may need to be a rethinking of the pro bono obligation to lower the number of hours, make it mandatory or put the obligation on the firm; with MDPs the volunteerism ethos of law may need to be rethought. Mr. Traynor gave a couple examples where multidiscipline services have or could have assisted the legal enterprise - management services for a county Superior Court Clerk’s Office or a public service law firm handling a medical waste matter for a poor county. He urged the legal profession to instill a sense of pro bono obligation on the MDP firm as a whole not just its isolated lawyers, to put out a call to develop a culture of commitment. The Judge responded to Mr. Nelson that approximately 125 firms have taken the Pro Bono Challenge; the Pro Bono Center last year developed a pro bono manual for smaller firms, firms with less than 50 members. Judge Bradford recognized lawyer pro bono in another form when he commented that in his state court appointed lawyers representing indigents are limited to $40 per hour yet court appointed experts, especially psychologists and psychiatrists, bill and are paid at their customary rate. Recognizing that accounting firms have been very forthcoming in public service work Mr. Mundheim urged caution that lawyers in law firms are better in responding to unmet legal needs than the people lawyers might appear to be lecturing. The Judge responded that there is a growing movement for corporate legal staffs to be involved in pro bono activities. If the general counsel thinks it’s important, such as by considering it in the evaluation, programs are developed and implemented. Because young lawyers joining these offices want to do pro bono general counsels have used these programs as a recruitment tool. The Judge responded to the Chair that there are not good statistics on lawyer pro bono activity as Florida is the only state with a reporting requirement and it’s only the hours performed directly through a legal services program, a very small minority of the pro bono work, that are documented.