SBM study: Lawyers give significant pro bono support, more needed

 by Cynthia Price, Legal News

and from SBM sources
The State Bar of Michigan (SBM) has released a study entitled And Justice For All concerning participation by Michigan attorneys in pro bono activities.
Its findings indicate that in 2007 nearly two-thirds of Michigan lawyers provided some volunteer legal service, and one-third provided financial donations to assist civil legal aid for low-income persons.
In current economic times, the need for legal services for Michigan poor is great, so the report notes that even more pro bono hours and funding are needed. More than three million people in Michigan live below 200% of the Federal poverty limit, which is the level at which citizens qualify for free legal assistance. Legal aid programs turn away three of every seven people who ask for assistance, according to the report.
SBM has voluntary standards loosely aligned with those of the national American Bar Association. The standards ask that each year attorneys provide pro bono services to three low-income clients, supply 30 hours of free or reduced-fee services, or donate $300 to a legal-aid organization. 
“Under the State Bar's Voluntary Pro Bono Standard, pro bono involves both volunteer legal assistance and financial donations to support nonprofit civil legal aid services for the poor,” said Charles Toy, president of the State Bar of Michigan. “Because this report provides insights about why lawyers give both service and donations, it will be a tremendous resource to the Bar, lawyers, and law firms, and to non-profit groups seeking to engage lawyers in pro bono activity.”
Additional education is needed to help lawyers apply a uniform understanding of what activities qualify as pro bono under this standard, according to the report.
“The survey is a gold mine of data,” said Janet Welch, executive director of the State Bar. “It looks at pro bono activity from every direction—by age, by gender, by race, by firm size, by practice setting, and by geographic region. It compares 2007 pro bono activity with the Bar's 1997 survey, and adds to a growing national body of research in this area.”
The State Bar has a Pro Bono Initiative which works to increase the amount of pro bono work being done, based on the unmet need.
The rich and detailed report (available at http://www.michbar.
org/programs/atj/pdfs/justiceforall.pdf.) delves into more than quantitative statistics about pro bono. It was initially proposed as part of a November 2008 Detroit-area Pro Bono Summit held by the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association and SBM’s Pro Bono Initiative of the Justice Initiatives Committee, and expanded statewide through funding by the Michigan State Bar Foundation.
At the core of the report is a survey, conducted by Michigan State University's Office for Survey Research at the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research under the direction of Dr. Larry Hembroff.   The web survey was widely distributed through SBM and local bar associations, and many attorneys in the West Michigan may have responded. The report’s methodology also included conducting seven focus groups of 5-16 attorneys each  in four cities around the state, and  telephone interviews with 20 pro bono coordinators from among the 31 largest law firms in Michigan.
Among the December 2009 report’s other findings is the encouraging sign that the vast majority of  lawyers believe in and support pro bono efforts.
The survey indicated that the top three reasons were the same as found by the 1997 survey, which are:
—A sense of personal satisfaction;
—The importance of supporting legal aid, the Bar, or a cause; and
—The belief that pro bono efforts are part of a lawyer’s professional responsibility.
As far as the more detailed demographic and informational breakdown — for example, the study reports that there is more participation from male attorneys than females in pro bono work — SBM plans to develop and distribute articles in the near future. According to SBM’s Candace Crowley, creation of these articles is already underway. 
An important message, however, is that despite all the good work attorneys do, more is critically needed. Said Toy, “While we greatly appreciate the contributions our members are making in their communities, we need more lawyers to meet their pro bono obligations through providing direct legal assistance to the poor, particularly in today's challenging economy.”
Lawyers can contact their local legal aid organization
or e-mail Lisa Barwick,
lbarwick@mail.michbar.org, to learn how to provide more pro bono help.
Crowley says that West Michigan attorneys who would like to increase their participation have several options. Legal Aid of Western Michigan, Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance, the Legal Assistance Center, and programs through Thomas M. Cooley Law School came to mind, but she says that there are also a number of statewide organizations which need attorney’s expertise, such as Elder Law of Michigan.
Crowley indicated that Community Legal Resources, which “with the assistance of private attorneys, provides pro bono legal representation to Michigan nonprofit organizations that are working with disadvantaged communities and individuals and are unable to pay for traditional legal services,” is also a good resource. The organization, whose website is http://www.
clronline.org, has expanded to the Grand Rapids area, and lists such non-profits as Lighthouse Communities and Scoop Senior and Elder Services in West Michigan.

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