A Review of Pro Bono and Public Service Work by Solos and Small Firms

Vol. 29 No. 1


Kathleen J. Hopkins practices law in Seattle, Washington, with her three best friends at the Real Property Law Group, where she limits her practice to commercial real estate transactions and financing. She may be reached at. Much of the quantitative data and conclusions in this article are pulled from Supporting Justice II: A Report on the Pro Bono Work of America’s Lawyers, by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service (February 2009) and Report on the Pro Bono and Non-Law Related Community Service of Solo and Small Firm Practitioners, presented by the GPSolo Public Service Committee to the GPSolo Executive Council (August 2007).


Solos and small firm lawyers generously donate their time, talent, and experience, providing their expertise for little or no charge to their communities and to those who cannot afford legal representation. But just what is the scope of this commitment, and what trends can be seen in their service? In 2004 and 2008, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service conducted comprehensive studies of the legal profession’s provision of pro bono legal services to address the unmet needs of the poor. In 2007 and 2011 the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division (GPSolo), with assistance from the Standing Committee’s Center for Pro Bono, conducted informal, experiential surveys of Division members’ pro bono and public service efforts. These surveys confirm what many of us already knew: Solos and small firm lawyers do not just talk the talk; they walk the walk. Consistently, through their actions, solos and small firm lawyers exemplify our profession’s strong, sustained commitments to ensure equal access to justice and to a just community. Indeed, the majority of solos and small firm lawyers provide pro bono and public service in their communities, even without the support system and project infrastructure available to many of their large firm counterparts.

The 2008 ABA survey confirmed that in our profession, both the overall percentage of pro bono participation and the average number of pro bono hours are on the rise, up from 73 percent of private practitioners in 2004 to 81 percent in 2008. More significantly, without even considering all the hours solos and small firm lawyers contribute to other community causes, we significantly outshine our large firm counterparts in the direct delivery of pro bono legal services: 84 percent of lawyers in firms of ten or fewer provide direct pro bono representation to individuals who cannot afford attorneys, compared to 73 percent of lawyers in larger firms. The 2008 survey also found that solos give an average of 43 hours per year in direct pro bono representation, and lawyers in firms of two to ten give an average of 37 hours annually. According to the less formal GPSolo 2007 survey, those numbers increase among GPSolo members to an average of 54 hours annually for free direct legal services, 102 hours annually for substantially reduced fee direct legal work, and 49 hours annually for free or reduced-fee work relating to civil rights, civil liberties, and public rights.

What qualifies as pro bono? Pro bono is not consistently defined. Each jurisdiction and each data-gathering group has its own definition of what qualifies as pro bono, but common to all is the recognition that a key element of pro bono is the representation of low-income people in civil cases. Pro bono definitions often include free and significantly reduced fee legal representation to individuals and entities. The ABA’s Model Rule of Professional Conduct (RPC) 6.1 is a good starting point for inquiry. It lists multiple tiers and encourages lawyers to strive to provide a majority of their pro bono work doing “tier-one” pro bono: direct legal representation, without expectation of fees, to persons of limited means or to organizations that address the needs of persons of limited means. RPC 6.1 also recognizes that other important work done by lawyers should be acknowledged and encouraged, although it does not give these categories the same priority as tier-one work. RPC 6.1 encourages lawyers to work in certain instances for substantially reduced fees and also on civil rights and civil liberties issues and on activities improving the law, the legal system, and the legal profession. (Review the RPCs, or similar rules, adopted in your state for specific guidance.)

How can we find pro bono opportunities? For large firm lawyers, identifying pro bono recipients is often done through established internal or external projects and coordinators. Solos and small firm lawyers, however, are more likely to receive pro bono referrals from family members, friends, and other lawyers. They are also more likely to rely on personal knowledge of a situation to ascertain whether an individual needs free or reduced-fee legal services. Perhaps it is the lack of the formal screening structure offered in the larger practice settings, but it could just as likely be that solos and small firm attorneys have more immediate, direct contact with those seeking legal assistance and, accordingly, have the opportunity to intuit whether their provision of pro bono or low bono services are appropriate, determining need based on economic indicia or, sometimes, empathy.

Although some solos and small firm lawyers identify pro bono opportunities independently, many organized pro bono projects welcome solos and small firm lawyers as volunteers. These projects often provide training, mentoring, and client screening. Most also provide malpractice coverage. In addition, federally funded civil legal aid programs (i.e., Legal Services Corporation programs) are always recruiting private attorney volunteers to supplement their ranks. In addition, the ABA can serve as a conduit, helping interested lawyers find other appropriate programs through its online, geographically searchable National Pro Bono Opportunities Guide.

One exciting, recent development worthy of specific mention is GPSolo’s partnership with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) to provide legal representation of unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings. Although the opportunity sounds challenging, consider that without a pro bono lawyer, unaccompanied children as young as three, four, or five years old are forced to fend for themselves—without anyone to argue their case. Certainly we, as legal professionals, can help. At the GPSolo Pro Bono and Public Service Standing Committee website, interested lawyers can review KIND’s training materials and access more than eight hours of free webcast and podcast CLE accredited training (in half-hour and one-hour increments). Lawyers can then enroll as KIND volunteers and be assigned cases and experienced immigration lawyer mentors to walk them through the entire hearings process.

Why do we do pro bono, and exactly what are we doing? The largest motivators among GPSolo members for providing pro bono services were their sense of professional responsibility (87.8 percent) and the personal satisfaction derived from providing the services (75.5 percent). Other significant drivers include knowledge of the legal needs of poor people (49 percent), faith-based commitment (31.3 percent), the opportunity to enhance one’s legal skills (30.6 percent), and professional benefits such as contacts and referrals (22.5 percent).

GPSolo members provide a plethora of pro bono legal services, and this article would go on for volumes if the full variety of projects were listed. Although some examples are listed below, it is evident the need for pro bono is extensive, and there is an opportunity for every lawyer that matches the lawyer’s interests or passions. For example, several GPSolo members participate in the Wills for Heroes program (drafting wills for first responders and/or members of the military). Others donate their legal skills to assist the elderly through legal issues and processes. Many volunteer their time assisting individuals whose homes are in danger of foreclosure. Still others work with HIV-positive clients who would otherwise be unable to afford a lawyer. Multilingual lawyers can be found assisting newcomers to this country facing a variety of legal issues and obstacles. Given the fact that GPSolo is the home of the military lawyer, it is not surprising that several of our members donate their legal skills assisting the families of our active-duty military with their civil legal needs, as well as assisting our disabled heroes and veterans to obtain their rightful benefits and treatment. Again, as every pot has a lid, the “right” pro bono opportunity is out there just waiting for lawyer volunteers.

What other public and community service work are solos and small firm lawyers doing? Solos and small firm lawyers also contribute their time and legal expertise to their local communities. They sit on the boards of not-for-profit organizations. They provide public education on legal matters. They donate considerable time on activities ancillary to the legal world, impacting the community in numerous ways—some mentor youth at risk, others use their legal knowledge and contacts to develop entire projects to address the unmet needs of others, such as foster children. GPSolo’s 2007 informal survey found that almost two-thirds (63.4 percent) of GPSolo members participated in activities to advance the rule of law and that the vast majority (79.9 percent) provided non-law-related community service. As with their pro bono work, many GPSolo members indicate they participate in public and community service because of their belief in civic responsibility (84.8 percent), personal satisfaction derived from the activity (79.2 percent), and a sense of professional responsibility (52.8 percent). The type of public and community service among GPSolo members is as varied as our membership. Again, there is a public or community service opportunity for every lawyer. Many of our colleagues are on the boards of religious organizations, others participate in Rotary, the Lions Club, YMCA boards, soup kitchens, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, scouting, student theater programs, or coaching high school teams, law school mock trial teams, or youth sports teams. Several use their legal training to serve as volunteer guardians ad litem and court-appointed special advocates for children in legal proceedings.

Assistance in finding suitable public and community service opportunities is available online at many sites, including VolunteerMatch. GPSolo is also proud to note specifically that our former chair (and former ABA president) Karen J. Mathis is the president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America; volunteer opportunities with that organization can be found on its website.

Solos and small firm lawyers are doing great things in the community. We are utilizing the precious gift we received—the keys to the legal system—for the betterment of society and to advance the rule of law. Opportunities abound to fulfill our professional and moral obligations. Lawyers who cannot figure out where they can best help need only access the Internet sites listed above or check out the numerous articles in this issue for more examples of how solos and small firm lawyers are engaging in pro bono activities. Your donation of time, talent, and expertise will not only be appreciated, it is absolutely necessary.



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