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TCL > September 1997 Issue > The Depth and Breadth of Pro Bono Work in Colorado

September 1997       Vol. 26, No. 9       Page  53
Legal Services News

The Depth and Breadth of Pro Bono Work in Colorado
by Daniel M. Taubman

In anticipation of the September 26, 1997, Pro Bono Conference, sponsored by the Colorado Bar Association, nearly thirty people who are experienced in the delivery of pro bono work gathered at an April 1997 symposium to discuss their successes and frustrations in providing pro bono representation and in encouraging lawyers and law students to engage in pro bono work. The April symposium, sponsored by the CBA Availability of Legal Services Committee, attracted practicing lawyers, pro bono coordinators, law professors, and judges to discuss the depth and breadth of the delivery of pro bono services in Colorado.

Highlights of the April Symposium

Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Kourlis, who will be a keynote speaker at the September Pro Bono Conference, told the symposium participants that they need to make the judicial system more accessible and more user friendly. This is so not just for the indigent, but for those with annual incomes between $20,000 and $50,000. Justice Kourlis is chair of the Supreme Court's Judicial Advisory Council, which has subcommittees studying the issues of increasing pro bono services and legal services funding and matters associated with pro se litigants.

Justice Kourlis also stressed the need to encourage all lawyers to make a commitment to do pro bono work as part of their practice. In response to the often expressed concern that lawyers cannot competently represent pro bono clients in areas outside of their regular practice, she indicated that, for many clients, some representation is better than none. Further, for underemployed attorneys, pro bono cases could be a "loss leader," which may actually generate billable work for pro bono lawyers. Justice Kourlis also stressed the importance of mentors and suggested the creation of a committee to establish parameters for proper mentoring.

Professor Gene Nichol, co-chair of the Judicial Advisory Council Legal Services/Pro Bono Subcommittee, discussed pro bono as a question of public obligation. He indicated that his subcommittee may well recommend the adoption of some form of mandatory pro bono rule. Many of the participants at the symposium seemed to agree that some form of mandatory pro bono rule would be acceptable. This view followed extensive discussion by participants of the varied efforts to increase pro bono work throughout Colorado and the difficulties encountered in this endeavor.

Status of Pro Bono Program Efforts

Jon Nicholls, co-chair of the Denver Bar Association's Legal Services Committee, noted that the Thursday Night Bar ("TNB"), the Denver Bar's legal services program, had a backlog of from 300 to 400 cases that had not been placed because of the lack of volunteer lawyers. He observed that the percentage of lawyers recruited by TNB has gone down, not up.

In contrast, Aaron Clay, former pro bono coordinator in Delta County, noted that every member of that bar does pro bono work and, on average, each lawyer handles three pro bono cases per year. According to Clay, the Delta County pro bono program succeeds because it is a small bar and peer pressure encourages everyone to participate. Nonetheless, Clay acknowledged that, as pro bono coordinator, he had been met with various excuses for rejected pro bono cases, such as: "I don't do divorce work," "I don't know how to do this kind of case," and "I am too busy right now." He indicated that he had responded by offering information, sample pleadings, and more experienced lawyers to serve as mentors, together with gentle cajoling.

Sue Parenteau, pro bono coordinator with Boulder County Legal Services, noted that only approximately 300 of 1,100 lawyers in Boulder do pro bono work through her program, but that other lawyers in Boulder do pro bono work for other programs such as Project Safeguard and the Children's Legal Clinic. She indicated that the number of hours it takes to complete a pro bono case has more than doubled since 1990, from about six to approximately fourteen. Parenteau also indicated that an average family law case takes from twenty to twenty-five hours.

Shari Shink, director of the Children's Legal Clinic (now the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center), stated that her program trains from fifty to seventy-five pro bono lawyers per year, approximately half of whom do not practice regularly in the area of children's law. According to Shink, pro bono lawyers working with her program usually spend from twenty to fifty hours on a domestic violence case over a four-month period, and occasionally even more time.

Rich Gabriel, a partner at Holme, Roberts & Owen, estimated that, at any given time, his firm handles between ten and twenty litigation matters that require significant attorney effort. He described the fulfilling nature of his own work with the Children's Legal Clinic. He noted that it was easier to get lawyers in his firm to work on legal cases involving obviously sympathetic issues or clients, such as those presented in cases with the Children's Legal Clinic. At the same time, however, Gabriel suggested that the minimum billable hour requirements imposed by some law firms might present a barrier to greater pro bono participation.

Both corporate and government lawyers expressed the difficulties they have had in encouraging their colleagues to participate in pro bono endeavors. Shari Ulery, director of the Pro Bono Committee of the Colorado Chapter of the American Corporate Counsel Association, spoke of the difficulty of getting in-house counsel in Colorado to do pro bono work. Although she stated that some of her organization's members have done pro bono work helping non-profit housing organizations, she concluded that the only way to get corporate counsel to participate more actively in pro bono work may be to make pro bono work mandatory.

Tony van Westrum, former chair of the CBA Business Law Section, stated that some in-house counsel may be precluded by their employers from doing pro bono work. He also noted that many business law practitioners are reluctant to do pro bono work because they have not appeared in court and are concerned about having to do so.

On the government side, Larry Hoyt, the Boulder County Attorney, described his work with the Government Lawyers Pro Bono Subcommittee of the CBA's Availability of Legal Services Committee. He was cautiously optimistic that the subcommittee's efforts to draft a policy to establish guidelines for government attorneys to do pro bono work would facilitate efforts in that regard.

Barb Martin, administrator of the Colorado Bar Association's Lend-A-Lawyer program, stressed the importance of recruitment, retention, and recognition to encourage lawyers to do more pro bono work. Among helpful practices she listed were newspaper articles about pro bono lawyers, thanking pro bono lawyers for their efforts, and sending judges the names of active pro bono attorneys.

Additionally, Professors Norm Aronson of the University of Colorado School of Law and Wadine Gehrke of the University of Denver College of Law discussed their efforts to increase pro bono work by law students.1 Aronson described his Lend-A-Law Student program, in which students team with government or private attorneys in pro bono cases. Some forty-five law students participated in this program during the past year. Additionally, both Gehrke and Aronson supervise law students participating in clinical programs.


All in all, the April 1997 pro bono symposium served as a stimulating opportunity to assess the diverse efforts across the state to meet the growing need for pro bono representation. CBA leaders hope that the September 26 Pro Bono Conference will build on the symposium. Its emphasis will be to provide an opportunity for attorneys to increase their knowledge of substantive law in areas where pro bono representation is needed and to learn how to represent pro bono clients effectively and with limited resources. The Conference also will include a track on immigration law and sessions on other substantive and procedural aspects of pro bono representation. In addition to Justice Kourlis' keynote address, the Conference will feature a debate on whether the Colorado Supreme Court should require lawyers to provide pro bono representation. If the Pro Bono Conference is successful, bar leaders hope to make it an annual event.2


1. See Maresh, "The Role of the Law School in the Delivery of Legal Services to the Poor," 26 The Colorado Lawyer 73 (July 1997).

2. For more information on the September Pro Bono Conference, contact Jo Ann Viola Salazar at the CBA offices: (303) 860-1115 or (800) 332-6736.

Daniel M. Taubman, Denver, is a judge on the Colorado Court of Appeals and chaired the CBA Availability of Legal Services Committee from 1995 to 1997. He is currently serving on the Supreme Court's Judicial Advisory Council Legal Services/Pro Bono Subcommittee.

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