Friday, October 23, 2009

Pro Bono Heroes

October 25 – 31, 2009 is the National Pro Bono Celebration sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. I, too, would like to extend my gratitude to all those who handle pro bono cases. And, I would like to challenge those who do not to consider joining the effort.

The reward for accepting pro bono matters is far greater than you can imagine. Yes, you spend time for which you receive no monetary compensation. Yes, your staff spends time that you cannot bill. And, yes, you use some office supplies that could have been used for a cash client. But, the satisfaction of helping a person who could easily have been lost in or entirely excluded from the system is a reward in and of itself. It is knowing that you gave your time and talent not the person best able to pay for them but to the person most in need; not for pay but because it was the right thing to do. To them, you are a hero.

Before leaving private practice in Pennsylvania to work at Legal Aid, I had the good fortune to work in a county in which the bar association decided to make pro bono effort a priority. With the strong support of most of the bench, a program was developed which encouraged attorneys to accept pro bono cases. Last year, 60% of the nearly 500 members in the bar association either handled a case for a qualifying client or they paid the $250.00 “opt out.” The opt out provision allows attorneys who are not assigned a case, who practice in an area not conducive to pro bono representation, or who would simply rather not take a pro bono case for any reason, to participate. The opt out fee is then donated to the legal services provider in the area.

In addition to the pro bono program and the encouragement of the bench, the bar association also runs periodic “custody workshops” on Saturday in which clients can receive information regarding custody or representation, if appropriate, from volunteer lawyers. The bar also issues an annual pro bono award to an individual and firm for their efforts for the poor.

There are undoubtedly similar efforts in many other locations to meet the legal needs of an ever increasing number of qualifying persons. At a time when the economy is floundering, joblessness is rampant, and legal aid organizations are being stretched very thin, those lawyers and paraprofessionals who step up to fill the void are invaluable and worthy of all the praise and thanks we can muster.