Pandemic Spurs Pro Bono Service Growth In 2020

The Financial Planning Association was a major player in pro bono services in 2020, a year that led to unprecedented growth. The FPA provided legal aid to nearly 8,000 individuals in need in 2020, which represents a 7 percent increase from the preceding year. Nearly 1,000 lawyers gave away approximately 14,750 hours of pro bono time to offer financial advice and legal support to members of the community.

Many of these services were offered virtually because of the constrictions placed on the lawyers by the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in government regulations that prevented many lawyers from meeting with potential pro bono clients in person.

Unfortunately, not every pro bono case means a win in court.

Honorable mentions go to a group of law firms in Los Angeles. Last month, they filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Superior Court to request a temporary stop to eviction hearings during the pandemic. The legal basis was sound: A CDC-mandated eviction moratorium is still in place all across the country because of the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic, so the need for eviction hearings is currently moot. But the legal request was worded to request these hearings cease until COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency.

But Orange County Superior Court Judge William Claster said, “I read that, and I thought, ‘Wow, that may be years.’”

The pro bono law firms said that clients could not socially distance in courtrooms, which is unfair to those who have already been adversely affected by the economic ramifications of the virus. Many have already lost jobs, businesses, or loved ones — and now the LA Superior Court system is asking them to appear for in-person hearings, putting them at even greater risk? It seemed unfair and unlawful, but the judge disagreed.

Claster added, “How does the injunction ever end? You’re asking me to — these are my words — shut down a significant portion of the superior court system.”


Do Personal Injury Lawyers Do Pro Bono Work?

The long and short of it is “yes,” personal injury lawyers do pro bono work. This is free legal advice or support provided to clients who are exigent, and all types of lawyers provide pro bono services some of the time. However, it’s important to understand that personal injury pro bono services are extremely rare. That’s not because personal injury lawyers are stingy — it’s simply because of how they get paid. 

Personal injury lawyers are most often retained on “contingency.” This means that they get paid when you do. If your lawyer doesn’t win the case, no one gets paid. Working pro bono on a personal injury case doesn’t make sense for most personal injury lawyers for a very logical reason: if they win the case, you can almost certainly afford to pay them the typical cut of attorneys fees. But there are exceptions.

All pro bono services are provided to help out those in dire financial need, and even if someone can technically pay for those services — it doesn’t necessarily mean the person wouldn’t be better off without the money. Those who can’t afford basic necessities like rent, groceries, or gas need every penny they can get. Other lawyers see pro bono service more as a civic “duty” — like a parent taking care of their children.

Mike Burman of Burman Law said, “I take pro bono cases because I am thankful to be an American. I am grateful for my license to practice law in Kentucky and Tennessee, but most of all, I find real satisfaction in helping people who work for a living. Sometimes people who work all day (or night) cannot access the lawyer they need, or, the budget just won’t allow for legal fees.” 

We recognize Burman for his extraordinary service to the communities he represents in Kentucky in Tennessee, especially for the disabled and former veterans.

Pro bono services are often provided to the disabled, people of color, minorities, veterans, and senior citizens because all of these categories of people are more likely to have rigid finances. Personal injury happens to be one niche of law that requires helping out people who were disabled, especially in car accidents. Visit website here for more information on car accident claims.

If you cannot afford legal counsel or find pro bono services, there may be other options available to reduce the costs of attorneys fees. Legal aid is often provided for cases that revolve around family law (divorce, child custody, etc.), domestic violence, welfare, renting, or public benefits. 

To search for legal aid applications for attorneys who serve your region, go to Law Help. The site’s sponsors have been especially helpful to those affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but they also connect lawyers with victims of personal injury, criminal and civil cases. In addition, you can use the website to search for information on the type of lawyer you might need or request help by perusing the provided resources.


Pro Bono Services Grants Recognition To Tennessee Pro Bono Lawyers

The Access to Justice Commission collaborated with the Tennessee State Supreme Court to recognize the outstanding service of 17 lawyers by granting them the 2020 Attorneys for Justice award, which is given yearly in Rutherford County to inspire lawyers who reside in the state to give their time away to those in need. The award requires at least 50 hours of legal service to qualify.

Director of Access to Justice Initiative Anne-Louise Wirthlin said, “The passion and commitment that comes with doing pro bono service are what we needed in the difficult and uncertain times of 2020. The attorneys being recognized as Attorneys for Justice helped their community connect with much-needed resources. Their dedication to serving Tennesseans in need is remarkable.”

The names of the attorneys who received the award are as follows: Tracy Church, Darwin Colston, Brittany Dinaso, Chase Doscher, Amy Farrar, Ted Goodman, Mitzi Hall, Katja Hedding, rad Hornsby, Scott Kimberly, Rebecca Lashbrook, Cherie Meece, Jimmy Richardson, Monika Ridley, Stacey Terral, Enoch Wilhoite, and Sonya Smith Wright. 

The Tennessee State Supreme Court conceived the Access to Justice Commission in order to provide these services to those living in poverty. The commission also serves to increase public education and foster communication between lawyers and laymen, identify legal priorities of the state, and provide project recommendations for the state Supreme Court. 

Pro bono services have been in the spotlight because of the recent collaboration between Microsoft and Davis Wright Tremaine, which drafted supportive policies to help local journalists protect their First Amendment rights. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will address the community’s need for legal support to expand pro bono programs and off pre-publication legal review, public access to old news records, and bolster subpoena defenses. These programs help local journalism remain strong in the face of adversity.


Are Pro Bono Attorneys More Common In Big Cities like DC or NYC?

The short answer is yes. Residents of rural areas of the United States have always had trouble finding pro bono legal services. The reason is simple and easy enough to understand. Lawyers who offer pro bono services are usually doing so for a combination of reasons. Sure, they want to help out those in need…but they also want everyone else to find out about how they helped someone in need. There’s an unspoken quid pro quo involved in this “free” transaction.

And it never hurts to spread the word in big cities either.

DC personal injury attorneys represent victims of accidents that were someone else’s fault. These might occur due to another person’s negligence, they might occur because someone purposely hurt another person, or they might occur simply because an accident occurred because of a mistake. Pro bono attorneys usually help those who need it the most — including the financially exigent. 

Does that mean living in a rural area completely bars you from receiving pro bono help? No, not at all. What it does mean is that you might have to travel farther to benefit from it. And even then, the amount of legal aid you receive might depend on your pro bono lawyer’s ability or desire to travel — if indeed you require them to travel.

For example, in Washington DC there are several potential paths to pro bono legal help. One is the American Association of Retired Persons Legal Counsel For The Elderly Volunteer Lawyers Project. The other is the DC Bar Pro Bono Program. Both are designed to connect pro bono lawyers to clients who need legal help but likely cannot pay for it.

The latter group provides services for lawyers who would like to donate some of their time for pro bono work as well. For example, it hosts training sessions where counselors will learn how to approach and win these cases for their new clients. The group also helps provide pro bono legal help to nonprofits and small businesses — especially those run by immigrants, people of color, other minorities, and women.

Why are these groups only available inside the city? Primarily because that’s where the resources are located. Lawyers have an easier time meeting and networking with other lawyers when they live in a compact area where people are always in need of help. In smaller towns and rural areas, there is more competition — and it makes it harder to get a leg in the game.

However, we do feel the need to say that while there is a place for pro bono lawyers in rural communities, those with the time and money to spare are usually already set up for success. Those whose offices exist in rural areas probably already knew that their client base would be small, which means the extra services they can offer would always be limited. But hey — it never hurts to ask if a lawyer you like will offer you their services pro bono no matter where you live.


Annual Pro Bono Award Winners Announced By Gibson Dunn

Each year, the Pro Bono Committee at Gibson Dunn gives out Frank Wheat Memorial Awards to those lawyers who have provided exceptional pro bono service to those in need. The awards are handed out on the basis of leadership, initiative, and results. More than that, Gibson Dunn provides them as a way to motivate and inspire other lawyers to do the say — as a sort of pay it forward maneuver.

The Multi-Office of COVID-19 Response to Small Business Needs won an award due to their work to help those who found themselves in dire financial straits because of lost income. Start Small Think Big focused its team efforts to small businesses that are minority owned or female owned. The group launched a new program to increase response time to facilitate and streamline legal consultations to determine if representation was required.

New York Moves Forward collaborated with the state of New York and the governor’s office to create and manage an online portal to provide information to small businesses about the CARES Act and how it might be used to provide federal aid to those businesses. The group fielded requests from more than 70 nonprofit organizations.

La Cocina is a San Francisco nonprofit built to provide legal advice to underrepresented clients of color, including women and immigrants. They collaborated with Gibson Dunn to help businesses owned by these individuals determine flexibility with leases during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The La Cocina Board of Directors stated that Dunn’s “support has allowed La Cocina staff and volunteers to spend even more time on critical entrepreneur and community support including The Emergency Relief Fund, an ongoing fundraising effort that has already distributed much-needed support to our La Cocina applicants as well as growing membership.”

The awards were given to a group of nearly 200 lawyers whose pro bono work amounted to around 4,300 hours of time.


Was A North Texas Family Illegally Evicted After The Federal Eviction Moratorium Extension?

The CDC recently extended a federal moratorium on eviction through the end of March to help families that are facing eviction because of financial hardships due to coronavirus and COVID-19. But that didn’t help Jonnay Mckinley, whose pro bono eviction attorney Mark Melton argues that the landlord and sheriff did not have the legal authority to proceed with the eviction. So why did it happen?

And at the end of 2020, Mckinley received the first notice to vacate. In response, she signed a declaration under the CDC’s policy and brought it to her leasing office. Nearly a month later, she was told that a constable would be on his wife the next day to remove the family forcibly if need be. She didn’t understand.

Mckinley said, “I felt so let down, like, what do I do? My kids, their faces. They’re like, Mom, I’m sorry. They feel sorry for me. ‘You tried so hard and it still wasn’t good enough.’”

According to Melton, Dallas County constables are not legally allowed to proceed with an eviction once they are informed that a tenant has submitted a CDC declaration. In that case, the constable can only return to court to alert the judge what transpired. The landlord would be forced to request a hearing if he still wanted to proceed.

We asked the Toronjo & Prosser law firm about their current bankruptcy cases. Like most firms around the country, they’re dealing with an increased caseload. According to attorneys at T&P, business owners have financial woes of their own — landlords among them — and haven’t been quick to show leniency to everyone else. But what goes around comes around, and people who disobey laws during the COVID-19 crisis will likely face harsh punishment if ever brought before a judge.

Mckinley’s experiences make that more than clear.

Melton said, “This isn’t even a he said, she said scenario. We have hard proof that this was submitted to all of the relevant parties and none of them did anything about it.”

But of course the constable says that Mckinley never mentioned it. 

Texas Supreme Court ruled on a 32nd emergency order to provide oversight about when and where a tenant needs to sign the moratorium declaration and send it. The 32nd would force the judge ruling over the case to halt the eviction barring a declaration hearing. None of that happened.

Eventually, late fees were waived by the apartment complex and her landlord said she could move back. According to the apartment’s management, a deal was reached. No other details were provided. 

Melton said, “Somebody slipped through the cracks and it has life-altering consequences to this young family. It never should have happened.”

Now, she has the keys to her old apartment back. She says she still feels like a failure, though. Mckinley explained, “My main thing is my babies. It’s not about me. It’s about them.”


Revisiting The Highest Profile Pro Bono Immigration Case Of 2020

President Joe Biden has basically stripped away nearly all of the misdeeds of the Trump presidency with a litany of executive orders — because many of those misdeeds were carried out by executive order themselves — but the stain won’t really wipe away so easily. Biden plans to allow many more immigrants and asylum seekers into the country over the next year or so, but fallout from Trump’s policies continues to haunt the new administration. 

Last year, Sidley Austin provided pro bono services during a joint lawsuit with Harvard Law School Clinic against the Department of Homeland Security because of illegal rules under enforcement by the Trump administration.

One such rule denied asylum seekers who were ever convicted of a felony or misdemeanor (with some exceptions). The rule went even further by barring entry to anyone who had ever helped one of these people.

The complaint filed by Austin and Harvard Law said, “These changes will dramatically curtail the availability of asylum to people fleeing persecution, in contravention of the INA’s plain language and the United States’ international commitments. The rule will thus have a devastating impact on asylum-seekers and immigration legal services providers — including plaintiffs and the communities they serve.”

The National Immigration Project, National Lawyers Guild D.C., and Immigrant Defense Project N.Y. helped file the complaint. They eventually won.

The argument was based on the simple fact that the restrictions would complicate the lawyers’ abilities to shift resources to help their asylum-seeking clients — or even meet with them at all. The rule would force the pro bono team to spend more time on each individual client’s case (because the government had just made them far more complicated), which would reduce the number of people they could assist and also cut off grant money, which was based on the number of people assisted. 

Trump’s rule would not only have applied to convicted criminals — but also to convicted criminals whose records were vacated or expunged.


Bank Of America Legal Offering Pro Bono Help To Improve Public Image

Big banks have big reputations. They’re too big to fail. Miss a payment and they will foreclose on your house. They will haunt you into the afterlife. You know, stuff like that. Now, it seems like Bank of America has realized that the public image might not be so great. The BoA legal department provides pro bono aid to lawyers and families, most recently in Charlotte, North Carolina. But Bank of America might find its image is more difficult to shed than that. 

Bank of America debt settlement lawyers will be the first to tell you that the bank operates a little differently than most others — especially when it comes to haunting those who default on their debt payments. You see, most banks (and creditors in general) will actually sell off the debt to a third-party when the debtor fails to pay. But not Bank of America. They have their own legal department come after you. Word on the street is that they can actually be pretty relentless. Which is why the bank’s need for an image reversal is no big surprise to anyone.

But admittedly, they’re still accomplishing some good work.

Assistant General Counsel Brett Shockley decided to take Bank of America up on its pro bono offer, and worked with the bank on the housing team in order to represent tenants who have trouble with their landlords. Can’t get the guy to fix the pipes? A small pro bono claim is no big deal to Bank of America’s huge legal department, because they can swallow the cost without even noticing.

Brett said, “Working with Legal Aid has been an eye-opening experience. I have a much greater appreciation of the struggles that low-income people face on a day-to-day basis.”

And it’s that empathy some lawyers sorely need.

Global General Counsel David Leitch said, “We are committed to doing our part to assist all members of our community, but especially those who are most vulnerable and have the greatest need. Our team gives their time and expertise to assist on a wide-range of legal issues, including anti-discrimination in housing, estate planning, helping veterans access their benefits, tax preparation, and child custody issues.”

Dawn Sewell works as a process design consultant for Bank of America’s legal department. He served as a team leader on Charlotte’s pro bono projects, and everyone he interacts with on a daily basis knows that he provides this service on behalf of the bank. 

Dawn said, “The expectation of pro bono service is set at our department’s highest levels of management. We should be very proud of those who answer the call to give up their time and energy. We have the power to improve the lives of our least-represented neighbors in real and practical ways.”

Although providing free legal aid to those who live in poverty will always be a worthy endeavor, it’s one that’s unlikely to be noticed by the public eye — and so BoA might have to work harder yet to change that image in any meaningful way.


Technology Is Helping Us Provide More Pro Bono Services

The pandemic means that providing the same goods and services to customers and clients is more difficult. But technology has provided ways to make things easier in some cases. For example, many professionals are providing information services online. Teachers conduct class via Zoom video conferencing. Even lawyers have found ways to conduct their business remotely — some are even setting up firms devoted to remote services!

But the need is even greater for remote pro bono services due to the coronavirus pandemic. In part, this is because those who have the most need can’t properly navigate public assistance programs — especially those that are brand new. Many people don’t even know which programs they qualify for. Who qualifies for unemployment benefits for the upcoming stimulus package? Who qualifies for the new $600 check? Whose landlords can place an eviction notice during this crisis?

These questions are sometimes difficult to answer alone, which is why the need for free legal assistance is so critical, now and over the next few months as the vaccine is rolled out.

Immigrants have been especially hurt because government assistance programs have tried to bypass them entirely — especially those who are undocumented. DACA protections have been reimplemented, but support networks for the Dreamers still need to be maintained. That means legal assistance must be made available. 

These protections are mostly provided remotely now. For example, Chicago’s King County court rolled out a new system so domestic violence survivors can electronically register for a protection order (against the alleged abuser) rather than appear in court in person, which was the way it was done before the first cases of COVID arose in the United States.

King County Bar Association has also led the Housing Justice Project (HJP) to help tenants avoid unfair eviction, providing counseling when needed. Other resources have been made widely available and can be found with a simple search online.


What Does The American Bar Association Say About COVID-19 And Pro Bono?

This year has been extremely stressful for lawyers, most of whom are receiving more cases than usual amidst a dangerous pandemic that has also changed how they must do business. Most casework can be completed at home or in an office with appropriate social distancing procedures in place. But clients have mostly been barred from these environments. Meetings take place over the phone or on Zoom clients instead. It hasn’t been easy.

And there are other issues, too.

Most Americans couldn’t afford a $400 emergency expenditure. Well, almost all of those people have had to try to afford a $400 emergency expenditure — because many Americans have lost their jobs. The economy is slowly crawling back, but the GDP growth has collapsed for the first time in many years.

Pro Bono New Jersey has expanded its resources to help many clients in northern states, but the workload is unsustainable in the long-term. Those in southern or western states can try Pro Bono Net, but should expect many of the same concerns. The ABA also provides detailed information on how to find a pro bono lawyer.

What does the American Bar Association have to say? They want you to know that there are still lawyers out there who can help you. Also, taking a look at the ABA website can help you find some resources you didn’t necessarily know were already free. For example, the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) has made its library of online courses available to anyone who signs up — and every single one of those course is completely free. You can create a guest account without signing up for an ABI membership.

Those who require legal services right now can reach out to the ABA Young Lawyers Division, which established a national hotline in order to provide easy information resources.

As always, many pro bono opportunities are still available: ABA Free Legal Answers provides virtual legal advice for those who need it the most. You can simply post a legal question. If it has not already been asked, a qualified lawyer will answer it promptly. The Massachusetts COVID-19 Pro Bono Portal helps residents find pro bono projects that could apply in a given situation. Many of these projects are currently remote in nature, making it easier for those who cannot travel.

The National Disaster Relief Pro Bono Portal connects victims of natural and other disasters to lawyers who are well versed in finding alternative avenues of compensation. COVID-19 is included under the umbrella of disaster relief, so it’s worth a try. The National Disaster Legal Aid Advocacy Center provides similar help. Go there if you cannot find what you are looking for from the previous Pro Bono Portal. 

The ABA also links to resources offered by the CDC. This is a great place to look if you’re having trouble coping in strictly non-legal ways, i.e. depression or anxiety about the future.