Pro bono works helps us all

Doug McClure

Guest columnist

Good for us! We made it into a profession that earns us a living and encourages public service at the same time. But these days, the earning a living part seems to take up most of our time and then some. How to fit in pro bono work when we're doing the dishes after dark, not working out, not reading that book? The truth is, that it's easier than ever to get pro bono work under even tightening belts. And pro bono work is varied, it's rewarding, it's career-building. It's good for us.

The need has never been greater. The State Bar's Judicial Crossroads Task Force last year reported: "Lawyers have an ethical duty to help provide legal service to those who can't afford it and Michigan's lawyers do so in large numbers and impressive ways, but despite their contributions there is still a large gap between the need for and the availability of legal representation. In these economic times, the problem is likely to worsen, and a sustained and comprehensive effort at providing legal aid and pro bono service becomes ever more urgent."

The problem has hit Washtenaw County hard. Legal Services of South Central Michigan (LSSCM), the nonprofit law firm providing free civil legal services in our area, helps clients deal with homelessness, domestic violence, and access to food and health care. Federal and state budget cuts stripped them of hundreds of thousands of dollars this year, and we as lawyers can do a lot to bridge that justice gap.

Pro bono legal work is a great way for a lawyer to help. Lawyers can get a case referral from LSSCM under its Pro Bono Program, and can also do pro bono work by charging a reduced fee to a client above the poverty line but unable to afford a lawyer. More and more parties in civil actions who cannot afford a lawyer are simply going it alone, appearing pro se without an attorney, unsure of their legal rights and remedies, unaware of court procedure, straining a strapped court system.

The recent influx of pro se parties in family law cases led our WCBA to create the new Modest Means Program, which is open to all attorneys, and will even pair inexperienced lawyers with a volunteer mentoring attorney. The lawyer agrees to represent a client at a reduced rate (currently $75/hr), and the reduction in fees counts as pro bono under Rule 6.1 of the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct, which provides:

A lawyer should render public interest legal service. A lawyer may discharge this responsibility by providing professional services at no fee or a reduced fee to persons of limited means, or to public service or charitable groups or organizations. A lawyer may also discharge this responsibility by service in activities for improving the law, the legal system, or the legal profession, and by financial support for organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means.

The SBM Representative Assembly's Voluntary Pro Bono Standard also allows pro bono credit for reduced fee work. Under the Standard, lawyers can do any combination of the following: (1) represent 3 low income individuals at no charge; (2) contribute $300-$500 to nonprofit programs delivering civil legal services to low income individuals or organizations; (3) provide 30 hours of representation or services to low income individuals or organizations at no charge; or (4) provide 30 hours of professional services at no fee or at a reduced fee to persons of limited means or to public service or charitable groups or organizations.

Pro bono work is its own reward, but it can also bring recognition. LSSCM formally acknowledges lawyers who take a case under the Pro Bono Program, or who contribute money; and LSSCM will also acknowledge an individual's reported pro bono work, including under the Modest Means Program. For example, if you billed $75 an hour to a client under the Modest Means Program, LSSCM would recognize each hour of work as roughly 1/2 hour of pro bono credit, depending on your usual hourly rate. The WCBA Modest Means Program coordinator will tabulate your information and report it to LSSCM - allowing your time to count toward pro bono work and recognition on LSSCM's annual published list of Pro Bono Attorneys.

Pro bono work is not only our professional duty and an ethical obligation. It also gives young lawyers valuable experience, and is sure to improve your social and professional networks.

And pro bono is not just for litigators. The Representative Assembly Pro Bono Standard counts time spent in activities such as" serving on a local pro bono committee or the board of directors of a legal aid or legal services program, training other lawyers through a structured program, engaging in community legal education programs, or advising nonprofit, low income, or public interest organizations or groups."

You won't regret doing pro bono work, but you may regret not doing it. As Jacob Marley's ghost late lamented: "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

So do some good this year -- for your profession, your community, yourself.

Douglas McClure is an attorney with Conlin, McKenney & Philbrick, PC in Ann Arbor (mcclure@cmplaw.com), and Director at Large of the WCBA, co-chair of the WCBA Public Service Committee, and past co-chair of the Judiciary Committee.

McClure is running for judge of Washtenaw County's 22nd Circuit Court.

Published: Mon, Jan 23, 2012

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