Pro Bono in the United States

by Louis O'Neill, White & Case LLP | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 22 May 2015 11:17 GMT

The Supreme Court is pictured in Washington March 9, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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Pro bono participation is widespread in the United States. Among the firms responding to this year’s Trust Law survey, more than 70% of US attorneys did 10 or more hours of pro bono. And on average last year US lawyers covered by the survey did almost 73 hours of pro bono. That’s nearly two full work weeks of volunteer service to others, a pro bono contribution among the very highest in the world.

One important reason for this extensive pro bono work is that the US has among the lowest government funding for civil legal services in the developed world. Private attorneys step in to help address a massive social need. And that help is strongly encouraged by the profession, as found in the American Bar Association’s Model Rule 6.1, which states that “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico services per year.” The Model Rule goes well beyond encouraging pro bono services, also calling on lawyers to “voluntarily contribute financial support to organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means.” Pro bono service is thus an inherent part of being a lawyer in the US.

It also has a long history here. As far back as 1770, just a few years before the United States came into being, John Adams (later the country’s second president) took on the pro bono defense of British soldiers prosecuted for what became known as the Boston Massacre. He also did less-remembered pro bono work for needy members of his community. Pro bono was already established as an accepted practice at the birth of this country, and Adams’ effort – even though some roundly criticized him for it at the time – shows its deep roots in this country.

Since then, the pro bono contributions of US lawyers have been at the forefront of the major issues of the day. From the fight to prevent racial discrimination, to overturning the US Military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy that discriminated against homosexual service persons, to the gay-marriage cases pending before the US Supreme Court today, US lawyers working for free have defended the powerless, the unpopular and the helpless. Cases like these are remembered, and cited, and drive change. But it is the day-to-day work of providing access to justice and meeting the basic legal needs to the poor – helping the child with special educational needs, bringing an asylum case, preventing a foreclosure or eviction – that really shows the mettle of pro bono lawyers in the United States.

It has never been easier or more important to do pro bono work in the US.

Easier because the US has a strong pro bono infrastructure in place, consisting of clearinghouses, legal service providers, bar associations, law firm programs and more. There are projects for everyone, on any topic and in any size. Technology is bringing pro bono to rural citizens, and innovations in the various states – like New York’s 50-hour requirement for bar admission – result in even greater involvement. Corporations are now encouraging pro bono work and are partnering with their law firms to do it. Pro bono clinics allow discrete but meaningful interventions, and cutting-edge projects for social enterprises are increasingly fitting the parameters of pro bono service.

And pro bono is important like never before. Groups such as New York’s Legal Aid Society still must turn away seven of eight requests for legal assistance, and there is little sign on the horizon of a boost in funding for civil legal services. So, as they say, “if you want something done, give it to busy person.” If we can all find a few more hours over the course of next year for pro bono, it will certainly improve someone’s life, and it may just help change the world.

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