The Winding Road to Promoting Justice: Obstacles for Government Attorneys in Providing Pro Bono Service
By Mercedes Pino
Mercedes Pino is an associate editor of The Affiliate and the director of Career Services at the St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens, Florida.
I was taught that the world had a lot of problems; that I could struggle and change them; that intellectual and material gifts brought the privilege and responsibility of sharing with others less fortunate; and that service is the rent each of us pays for living, the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time or after you have reached your personal goals.
One of the most important ways in which we, as a legal community, can promote justice is by providing pro bono legal services, including providing services to disadvantaged persons, assisting organizations that deal with the poor or indigent, and raising awareness of the legal system and/or the legal profession. Performing pro bono work also supports the general mission of the American Bar Association (ABA)—to be the national representative of the legal profession, serving the public and the profession by promoting justice, professional excellence, and respect for the law. In fact, giving back to the community is so integral to the legal profession that Goal II of the ABA is “to promote meaningful access to legal representation and the American system of justice for all persons regardless of their economic or social condition.”
Ronald Reagan once said, “No matter how big and powerful government gets, and the many services it provides, it can never take the place of volunteers.” Ironically, it is often government attorneys who face the biggest obstacles in providing pro bono services. By definition, a government attorney is any lawyer employed within local, state, or federal agencies, including public defenders and the military. According to the 2007 National Summary Report put out by the National Association for Law Placement, over 4,000 graduates from the class of 2006 went into government practice.
When you consider the large number of attorneys working in the government, the obstacles preventing them from performing certain types of pro bono work become even more significant. Government attorneys have to be particularly careful when it comes to using public agency resources or volunteering during business hours, and they have to be mindful of any federal rules, statutes, or regulations establishing a specific ethical code of conduct for federal employees. When providing pro bono legal services, government attorneys also have to be aware of the various circumstances that may constitute a conflict of interest for them due to subject matter or cases involving their employer. In addition, because they have to work outside of their area of expertise, government attorneys may lack the legal skills necessary to work in a particular, specialized area of practice.
Now for the Good news! There are quite a few federal and state agencies that have recognized the specific challenges that government attorneys face when deciding to perform pro bono legal services, and these agencies have established policies dealing directly with these issues. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement that established its pro bono policy. The policy sets out definitions, limitations, approval requirements, and specific conflicts of interest and prohibited activities.
In addition, a number of other organizations have developed opportunities or projects that cater specifically to the needs of attorneys in the government sector. For example, The King County Bar Association works with a day laborers’ organization to provide legal advice on wage claims and conducts legal clinics at homeless and women’s shelters.
If you live in an area that does not have a pro bono program for government attorneys, or your bar association wants to create a program, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, when planning a project, remember to provide opportunities in the evenings or weekends and a place for government attorneys to meet with clients. Second, as an organization, you may be able to provide some of the office support/supplies needed to adequately carry out the assigned task; this could be very beneficial for government attorneys. Third, you might consider concentrating your pro bono program in an area of law that does not pose a conflict of interest for your target government agency. If the subject matter is outside an attorney’s normal practice area, you can provide training or CLE programs to get attorneys up to speed.
Whether you are a government attorney seeking a pro bono opportunity or a bar association wanting to start a new project, the most important part is reaching out to your community and making a difference. As Bill Clinton said, “Citizen service is the very American idea that we meet our challenges not as isolated individuals but as members of a true community, with all of us working together. Our mission is nothing less than to spark a renewed sense of obligation, a new sense of duty, a new season of service. . . . Volunteers are vital to enabling this country to live up to the true promise of its heritage.”
For more information on the participation of government attorneys in pro bono services, visit the Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service and the Center for Pro Bono website at www.abanet.org/legalservices/probono.