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Spotlight on pro bono


By Hon. Barbara Crowder, Judge, Third Judicial Circuit

When the Illinois Supreme Court Rule 756(f) was first amended to require lawyers to report any pro bono services intentionally provided and voluntary monetary donations to legal service providers, one would have thought it was a menacing Robert DeNiro asking for the information based upon the hue and cry raised by some attorneys. Lawyers were reminded that the primary goal was to address the unmet legal needs of those residents with limited income. Reporting pro bono hours is viewed as a way to increase the delivery of legal services provided directly to persons of limited means. Although the rule also asks about efforts that assist local communities and organizations along with time spent training others and any monetary contributions, the goal of the mandatory reporting requirement was proclaimed as a way to help lawyers remember to do pro bono directly. The comments suggest that those who are prohibited from providing direct services should donate money and their time to help train volunteer attorneys. Since the ARDC has issued the Annual Report of 2015, it seems an appropriate time to see how the lawyers of Illinois are doing.


First, one should be clear how many lawyers we have available to make the annual reports to the ARDC.  At the end of October in 2015 (the end of the registration period), 81,417 active lawyers were living in Illinois. Of these, 1,805 are judges or legal clerks. The annual report shows some categories such as Foreign Legal Consultant (15) and a few others such as active duty military (372) that may experience challenges in doing Illinois pro bono. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Illinois attorneys are located in Cook County. There were 45,487 active and inactive attorneys registered in that First Appellate District court system in 2015. The numbers lessen as one checks further south by appellate districts as the Second District housed 10,469 lawyers and the Third Appellate District has 3,020.  The Fourth is slightly larger than the Third, owing to the state capitol one imagines, weighing in with 3,214 lawyers. Finally, the largest geographic Fifth District with 37 counties can boast only 2,560 attorneys in its borders. It is also important to note that some 31% of lawyers living in Illinois actually have their primary offices in other states where it is possible they are assisting individuals of limited means closer to where the attorneys actually have their offices. The ARDC reports the number of attorneys and their principal office location by county for those who want more details.

Pro Bono Reported

The ARDC does not break down the pro bono information by appellate district. Fortunately for many, while reporting is mandatory, the information reported by each attorney is confidential. First for the good news: more lawyers report donating legal services in 2015 than the number who did so in 2014. 31,362 lawyers in this state provide pro bono services which is a 3.8% increase. Kudos belong to those lawyers who donated 1,083,664 hours of service directly to persons of limited means. And praise is also in order for the other categories of pro bono hours that Illinois lawyers donated. Dedicated Illinois lawyers provided a total of 2,055,987 hours of service. Of those, 54,272 hours were spent training lawyers to provide pro bono service. Lawyers donated 545,450 hours to organizations to benefit their communities or other individuals. Finally, when asked to devote time to organizations whose address the legal needs of persons of limited means, Illinois lawyers gave 372,601 hours in 2015.

Of course, the ARDC noticed that 62,766 attorneys conceded in their reports that they had not provided any pro bono legal services. Only 9,942 of those claimed to be prohibited by their employment from directly helping out. Worthy lawyers also contributed money that met the pro bono reporting criteria. The percentage of lawyers donating money increased to 18.7% (up from 18.5%) in 2015 and the amount contributed went up 4%. This means that 17,565 attorneys made contributions to groups providing legal services to people of limited means totaling $14,802,544. Illinois lawyers have indeed donated time and money to helping meet the needs of the residents of Illinois.


One must notice, of course, that there are lawyers who are contributing neither time nor money. The preamble to the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct addresses a lawyer’s responsibilities and expresses in Rule 6A that it is the responsibility of each of us to provide unpaid services in the public interest. And of course the reporting requirement allows for those who cannot take an actual case or assist a community or legal service organization directly to help in other ways such as helping to train attorneys who provide pro bono services or making a monetary contribution. In case there are readers who would be willing to provide a service but have not done so because of concerns over the time commitment to take a case, the Standing Committee on Delivery of Legal Services has a myriad of suggestions.

  1. There are groups that will accept volunteer attorneys:
  1. Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation (CVLS) - acts as a general practice law firm for the poor with the help of volunteer attorneys.
  2. Legal Assistance Foundation (LAF) - a legal service provider focusing on civil legal service for low-income individuals and senior citizens in Chicago and Suburban Cook County.
  3. Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) - an agency which works to cultivates a lifelong commitment to public interest law and pro bono service within the Illinois legal community to expand the availability of legal services for people, families and communities in need.
  4. Prairie State Legal Services - a legal service provider focusing on civil legal services for low-income individuals and senior citizens. Prairie State serves 38 counties in central and northern Illinois.
  5. Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation - a legal service provider focusing on civil legal services for low-income individuals and senior citizens. Land of Lincoln serves 65 counties in central southern Illinois.
  1. Telephone/e-mail assistance:
  1. ISBA and some local bar associations do a Law Day telephone referral where attorneys answer questions. Volunteer or start one.
  2. Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) is creating a program where attorneys can answer e-mail legal questions which may help attorneys in more populated areas volunteer in the areas where there are not many lawyers
  1. Local bar associations or judicial circuits
  1. Currently, six judicial circuits have local pro bono committees that provide opportunities for a wide range of potentially interested lawyers. Some do telephone, some provide one or two days a month where a lawyer can donate as little as one hour of time to meet with people who are of limited means who do not have attorneys. Pro bono with a defined time commitment may be a way to start having something to report to the ARDC.
  2. Inquire if there is a pro bono committee in your local bar association and, if so, volunteer for it to help plan trainings for attorneys who can do pro bono. If not, volunteer to help start a committee!
  1. Become an ISBA Pro Bono Partner and consider what else you are able to do, perhaps with the use of limited-scope representation.


Now that Illinois lawyers report pro bono efforts, it is useful to review and laud the wonderful contributions made by so many to help meet the burgeoning needs for legal services. It is just as important to inform those who have not yet engaged in pro bono services that giving to the community does not necessarily interfere with the ability to handle their work or to spend time with their families. The opportunities to do pro bono have increased and span the continuum of time and interests. So when the ARDC asks the question the first response need not be a panicked “Are you talking to me?”


[1] "You talkin' to me?" is a popular quote delivered by Travis Bickle, a character played by Robert De Niro in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver

Posted on August 24, 2016 by Chris Bonjean
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