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Helping the Helpers

Online service makes it easier to find pro bono work

Posted Jan 1, 2008 2:47 PM CDT
By Siobhan Morrissey

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Mark Schickman. Photo by Melissa Barnes

The co-spon­sors of the new National Pro Bono Oppor­tunities Guide hope it will help address a striking paradox of legal services delivery in this country: Lawyers often have trouble finding pro bono cases, even in a sea of legal services needs.

The online guide contains listings of more than 1,100 service organizations nationwide that need volunteer lawyers to represent individuals on various legal matters. Using the directory’s search option, lawyers are able to find programs based on region, practice area and client base, as well as whether CLE credits are available for any aspect of particular assignments.

The guide is co-sponsored by the ABA Standing Com­mit­tee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the ABA Center for Pro Bono, and Pro Bono Net—a nonprofit based in New York City that seeks to increase access to legal services for low-income people. The guide is online at volunteerforprobono.org.

Of the 36.5 million Americans who live in poverty, “less than 20 percent ever see a lawyer in a given year, but every single one of these people has at least one substantive legal problem a year,” says Anthony H. Barash, director of the ABA Center for Pro Bono. The poor have a disproportionate need for legal services compared to the middle class. They have difficulty in accessing benefits. They have the kinds of problems that benefit from legal intervention, like housing problems.”

With that much need, “finding pro bono cases, unfortunately, is not hard. I wish it were harder,” says Mark I. Schickman of San Francisco, who chairs the ABA’s Standing Com­mittee on Pro Bono and Public Ser­vice. “There is a ton to be done out there for core pro bono cases, for people of limited means who otherwise cannot get lawyers.”

There are, however, some practical challenges for lawyers seeking to take on pro bono work. One is that lawyers don’t always know exactly where to look for pro bono clients. That’s why connecting with an organization that already serves their related needs makes sense.

Another issue is that lawyers are reluctant to take on cases in areas in which they feel they lack expertise. But often that’s a matter of not recognizing how much they really know, Schickman says.

“People don’t know that they have the skills to handle it, but they do,” he says. Moreover, “legal services programs help to match opportunities,” and many provide training as well.

AN ONGOING COMMITMENT

The National Pro Bono Opportunities Guide can help streamline the process by helping lawyers identify specific organizations to learn about, the types of cases they handle and the support services they provide. In some cases, the guide connects with an organization at the state level, such as Illinois Pro Bono, which links to legal assistance groups. For other states, the guide links directly to legal assistance groups. The Arizona link, for instance, allows a lawyer to connect directly to 23 different organizations.

The ABA is a longtime proponent of pro bono work by practicing lawyers. Rule 6.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which sets an aspirational target of at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services every year, has been adopted, sometimes with variations, by more than half the states. Karen J. Mathis of Denver, the ABA immediate-past president, introduced a Second Season of Service initiative to encourage lawyers approaching retirement to make a commitment to public service work.

Mathis’ predecessor, Michael S. Greco of Boston, appointed the Commission on the Renaissance of Idealism in the Legal Profession, which developed policy recommendations supporting pro bono work by lawyers in all practice settings, urged law firms and other legal employers to support pro bono by their lawyers, and called on law schools to require on-campus recruiters to disclose their pro bono policies and activities. The House of Delegates adopted the recommendations in 2006.

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