Vol. 28, No. 8
Pro Bono Success Stories
Making Pro Bono Part of the Real World
by Stacy Carpenter, JoAnn Viola Salazar
Wanted: Large Denver firm seeks associate with 1 to 3 years experience, top 20%, excellent writing skills. Must have a record of dedication to the provision of pro bono work to the poor. . . .
Imagine an ad like that! Some firms do expect their applicants to have a commitment to providing pro bono legal services. During the recent discussion about mandatory pro bono, Colorado attorneys voiced support for pro bono, while almost unanimously opposing a mandatory rule.1 Most agreed that accepting pro bono cases is an attorney’s ethical obligation and also provides a valuable resource for, and an opportunity to connect with, the community. The Colorado Bar Association’s Pro Bono Taskforce currently is examining the issue of increasing pro bono participation statewide, hoping to find ways to make pro bono services an integral part of the work culture of attorneys.
Federal funding for legal services organizations is decreasing, leaving those offices greatly understaffed.2 The result is an ever-widening gap between those who need free legal representation and the organizations that provide such services. As a consequence, local bar pro bono projects are turning to the legal community to ask that individual attorneys donate more time to representing indigent clients. There is a great need for more volunteer attorneys to participate in projects all over the state. For example, although there are more than 6,000 attorneys in the five-county metropolitan Denver area, in 1998, Metro Volunteer Lawyers ("MVL") placed a total of 1,462 cases with only 578 individual attorneys. Those numbers indicate that less than 10 percent of metro area attorneys participated in the MVL pro bono program.
One reason offered for these low placement numbers is that law firms do pro bono work for other organizations, such as the Rocky Mountain Children’s Legal Center or the Colorado Lawyers’ Committee. This type of work has never been included in the statistics. The Denver Bar Association Access to Justice Taskforce is currently gathering information from all Denver-area providers regarding attorney participation to learn how much pro bono work is being done. This survey should make a great difference in the numbers we have seen in the past by including statistics about pro bono work being done other than for MVL. These survey results also should provide a more accurate assessment of the situation.
Many firms promote themselves as organizations committed to pro bono legal services, encouraging their attorneys to accept pro bono cases and providing resources such as support staff, access to computer research, and mentoring. However, last year, several of Denver’s large law firms accepted no MVL cases and, of the cases accepted by large firms, only a small percentage was handled by associate attorneys, a group who generally supports the concept of pro bono services. In fact, most cases were handled by solo practitioners and firm partners. It is clear that, at some point, the law firms’ commitment is not being heard at the associate level.
MVL cases can offer associates opportunities for client contact, case management, and courtroom experience. So where is the message lost? Associates are under pressure to bill hours. Law firms are businesses and make their money by establishing client relationships and billing hours. They establish minimum billable hour requirements and evaluate associates by the number of hours billed in a year. At most firms, the billable hour message conflicts with the firm message regarding commitment to pro bono services. One message affects the associate’s employment and chances for promotion; the other reflects an associate’s personal beliefs and feelings of self-esteem and may greatly increase his or her level of experience. However, providing pro bono legal servics does not put food on the table.
One method law firms can use to strengthen their commitment to pro bono cases is to give associates billable-hour credit for time spent on pro bono cases. Giving billable-hour credit for pro bono work sends a clear message about what the firm expects of its associates. In this way, the law firm and the associate can share the responsibility for supporting pro bono legal services, while neither is forced to take on the heavier burden. With this plan, law firms would witness an increase in the number of pro bono cases handled and the firm’s verbal commitment to pro bono legal services would become a reality. In addition, firms can expect to see an increase in experience among young associates and a healthy connection to the communities in which the associates have the opportunity to volunteer their services. It is hoped that metro area law firms will consider instituting such an option.
Boulder Bar Honors Firms for Pro Bono Commitment
Recently, the Boulder County Bar Association and Boulder County Legal Services ("BCLS") honored fifteen Boulder law firms for their 100 percent commitment to pro bono legal services. Every attorney in each of the following firms participated in the BCLS pro bono project: Balis & Barrett, Cooper & Tanis, Frankel & Thrower, Goff & Goff, Grant & Grant, Irvin & Irvin, Hutchinson Black and Cook, Johnson & Johnson, LaBuda & Goulart, Lichter Korkin & Associates, Lirtzman Nehls & Hepner, Rautenstraus & Joss, Ridgway Romeo & Vincent, Stone Sheehy Rosen & Byrne and Warren & Carlson. These firms clearly manifest a dedication to legal services for the poor. They have made the commitment to pro bono a reality in their work culture. We salute them.
1. See Aisenberg, "A Letter from the President of the Colorado Bar Association," 28 The Colorado Lawyer 15 (May 1999); Hartman, "CBA, Courts, Say No to Mandatory Pro Bono," 28 The Colorado Lawyer 25 (Aug. 1999).
2. Funding news is better than it has been for several years because the Colorado legislature just appropriated funds for legal services for victims of family violence. See Aisenberg, "Letter to Colorado Bar Association Members," 28 The Colorado Lawyer 25 (July 1999).
Stacy Carpenter is an associate at Baldwin and Brown. She serves as a co-chair for the DBA Legal Services Committee and is a member of the CBA Pro Bono Taskforce. This department is edited by Jo Ann Viola Salazar, CBA Director of Public and Legal Services. Submission of success stories is welcome. Contact Jo Ann at (303) 824-5310 or (800) 332-6736.
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