Many people have used the pandemic to band together in a show of community support. Teachers have gone from the classroom to learning how to teach remotely and then back to the classroom. Lawyers and judges have begun to do business online and in a virtual space. Healthcare providers have been most at risk but reap the fewest rewards. Everyone has had to make these changes in order to keep the country moving in the right direction.
Most state bar organizations ask law firms to commit a specific number of hours to pro bono work. Others enforce it. And that “pro bono obligation” is what we’re here to discuss. While we hope lawyers would commit their time voluntarily, some must be compelled. The reason? Not everyone can afford legal help, and public attorneys don’t always provide the same caliber of work that private attorneys do.
Usually, obligation precedes bar certification. A 2012 ruling made New York the first state to implement such a rule.
Presiding Judge Jonathan Lippman said, “If pro bono is a core value of our profession, and it is — and if we aspire for all practicing attorneys to devote a meaningful portion of their time to public service, and they should — these ideals ought to be instilled from the start, when one first aspires to be a member of the profession.”
That law hasn’t yet been applied to most practicing lawyers.
What’s the driving idea of pro bono obligation? It’s similar to what it means to provide jury duty, which is considered not just a civil service — but a civil “duty.” We don’t do it because it’s convenient, personally beneficial, or because we want to. We perform the service because it’s a duty required of us by the community. That doesn’t change that providing such a service can be very rewarding and provide individuals with a great deal of fulfillment. Whether or not lawyers or those seeking to pass the bar exam perform pro bono work willingly, then, is not so important.
An anonymous family lawyer from the Matteucci Family Law firm said, “Many legal clients in need of pro bono services arise in our neck of the woods, New Mexico. Imagine you’re in a toxic relationship with an abusive partner who wants to take the kids. She’s got money and influence, but she beats them or does drugs. You know they need to be removed, but you can’t afford the same kind of legal help she can. That’s where pro bono work comes in. We make this work — because that’s why we’re here.”
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The pandemic might be inspiring change in the way we all feel about pro bono obligation — and whether or not that obligation should be applied only to those seeking to pass the bar, or those who already have succeeded. It’s also worth wondering where these laws are likely to be written first. This might be worth the wait.