By Michael G. Bergmann
This is a question raised by Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, who argues "that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." And so, Juliet says that the names of things do not matter, only what things are. For certain, whether or not you call it a rose, that which we know as a rose will smell like a rose. But is this always true? I dare say it is not, with due respect to both Shakespeare and Juliet.
The instance in which I argue this is not true is with regard to pro bono legal services. Almost as eloquently as Shakespeare, our very own Illinois Supreme Court has with great clarity provided us a clear and indisputable definition of pro bono. Rule 756 of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct was amended in 2006, at which time the definition of pro bono was established by the Court for us Illinois lawyers. The Rule, in pertinent part, reads as follows:
Pro bono legal service includes the delivery of legal services or the provision of training without charge or expectation of a fee, as defined in the following subparagraphs:
(a) legal services rendered to a person of limited means;
(b) legal services to charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental or educational organizations in matters designed to address the needs of persons of limited means;
(c) legal services to charitable, religious, civic, or community organizations in matters in furtherance of their organizational purposes; and
(d) training intended to benefit legal service organizations or lawyers who provide pro bono services.
In a fee case, a lawyer's billable hours may be deemed pro bono when the client and lawyer agree that further services will be provided voluntarily. Legal services for which payment was expected, but is uncollectible, do not qualify as pro bono legal service.
Many lawyers do good deeds. We volunteer our time in our communities, with our children's schools and extracurricular programs, and are leaders in bar associations. We give our money to various nonprofits, to our religious institutions, and to others in need. And, all of these good deeds are extremely important and impact the lives, communities and organizations we serve. However, pro bono in the context of our legal system is more than just its literal translation of for the good. Pro bono legal services are solely the delivery of legal services or the provision of training without charge or expectation of a fee for persons of limited means or the organizations that serve persons of limited means. Lawyers are the only ones who can provide these pro bono legal services… and the need has never been greater.
Funding for legal aid is nowhere near sufficient to meet the need. For instance, funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is continually under attack and current funding levels are $119,969,499 less than the 1976 funding levels (the year in which LSC was established) when adjusted for inflation. Even with the generous and critical support of the Illinois Bar Foundation, Lawyers Trust Fund, Illinois Equal Justice Foundation and The Chicago Bar Foundation to legal aid programs across the state, many still do not have sufficient resources to meet the need.
Because of the lack of funding, there are nowhere near enough legal aid programs or staff to handle the client demand. An August 2012 press release from the LSC announced the findings from a recent study that showed that legal service agencies expect to have to cut 8 percent of their staff due to funding reductions, resulting in nearly 750 fewer legal aid staff across the country. There are just over 400 full-time equivalent legal aid attorneys in the state of Illinois. The two major downstate programs, Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation and Prairie State Legal Services cover 65 and 36 counties in the state respectively.
Despite this funding crisis and the shortage of legal aid staff, according to the Lawyers Trust Fund, our state's legal aid programs served 183,390 in 2011 – a number that has more than doubled in the last two decades. Of those 183,390 clients served by legal aid in the state, 28,356 were handled by pro bono volunteers. We have made impressive strides in serving more clients over the years, thousands are still being turned away and have to tackle their legal issues alone. But, you can help.
Visit www.IllinoisProBono.org today to learn more about the many legal aid programs across the state and the varied pro bono opportunities they offer. From transactional to litigation, from matters that will require a significant time commitment to short-term projects, from matters that require experience to those which you can handle with little experience thanks to the support and training of the legal aid program, there is something for every willing volunteer.
Please continue to serve and support all of the other important charities. Get involved in the organized bar and take on a leadership role (apply for an appointment to an ISBA Section Council or Committee by February 1, 2013). And while all of that is on top of the demands of practice, think about also taking on one pro bono matter over the next year. The need is so great but likewise is the impact that you can have on the client you help. As lawyers, we are the only ones that can make that difference in the lives of our pro bono clients.
Michael G. Bergmann is the Executive Director of the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) and is a member of the ISBA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services and the Special Committee on Fair & Impartial Courts.