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Pro Bono in Principle and Practice

Encouraging lawyers to engage in pro bono work continues to occupy the time and energy of so many state bar associations and other organizations across the country. Why? Because there is no disputing that there is a lack of legal assistance available to the poor. Legal needs studies from across the country, including here in Illinois, consistently find that less than 20 percent of the legal needs of the poor are addressed by direct legal representation by a lawyer. Despite the efforts of many skilled and dedicated people, participation by attorneys as a whole in pro bono activity is still quite low.

Deborah L. Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford University and the Director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, has written about this issue extensively. She has also conducted research in an attempt to determine why attorneys do and do not do pro bono work. The results of that research are contained in her 2005 book, Pro Bono in Principle and in Practice: Public Service and the Professions (Stanford University Press, 2005). In that work she cites the following statistics:

  1. Although the United States has more lawyers than any other country, only 20 percent of the legal needs of the poor are met.
  2. That only one percent of the money we spend as a nation on legal assistance goes to legal aid and other public interest legal groups.
  3. That the average amount of volunteer service by lawyers is less than 30 minutes per week (the 2008 ARDC report on self-reported pro bono service shows Illinois lawyers spend an average of 30 minutes per week on all kinds of pro bono work; they spend an average of 15 minutes per week on volunteer services directly to persons of limited means).

As part of her research she sent 3000 questionnaires to lawyers who graduated from one of six law schools with different approaches to pro bono work, recent individual and law firm winners of the annual ABA Pro Bono Publico awards, and firms for which annual pro bono information was available. While not a random sample, the point was to identify groups that would have useful information about the factors most likely to influence whether an attorney does pro bono work. Her findings include the following:

  1. The three most frequent reasons given for attending law school were pursuing a financially rewarding and secure career, seeking an intellectual challenge, and keeping options open.
  2. Respondents reported that over 87% of the law schools they attended had a pro bono policy that either required or strongly encouraged pro bono work during law school. At the same time, they also reported that only about one-third of the schools had adequate resources for pro bono activities, only 3% said pro bono activity had support from faculty, and only 1% recalled public service issues arising in professional responsibility courses.
  3. Law schools with mandatory pro bono programs or strong investments in resources to promote pro bono generally had high rates of volunteer service by students while in school, but that there is no correlation between that and pro bono service after graduation.
  4. The factors most likely to encourage pro bono work were the personal satisfaction it brought and a sense of professional obligation to pursue it.
  5. The 3 biggest factors in limiting pro bono work were workload demands, family obligations, and billable hour expectations.
  6. Slightly over 53% of employers had a formal (35%) or informal (18.1%) pro bono policy, but only 25% of the employers fully counted pro bono hours toward billable hours.
  7. Only 10% of the respondents felt their employer valued pro bono work the same as paid work as it related to eligibility for bonuses and promotions and 43.5% thought it was viewed negatively.
  8. 43% of the respondents were dissatisfied with their pro bono work and none were very satisfied. The specific concerns expressed included the feeling that their pro bono work was not truly pro bono, but unpaid work for paying clients, relatives, personal legal matters of partners, and work for the “pet organizations” of certain partners.

The examples above show that there are many avenues to increase pro bono participation. Professor Rhode concludes her book with an agenda for reform that tries to approach the issue in various ways, including that bar members be required to report the amount of pro bono service they provide. This is a step that Illinois has already taken. For those of you who are interested in what motivates pro bono service and what might be done to increase the amount to pro bono service provided, you could hardly pick a better place to start than with this book.