Should We Narrow the Definition of Lawyer Pro Bono? Will That Lead to More Poor People Being Served?

By: Steve Grumm

Environmental stewardship is important.  It’s also great to provide legal work that supports the arts.  Who doesn’t want to support the arts?  But by including such activities in how we – the legal community – define pro bono, are we lessening the odds that pro bono lawyers will take on poverty law cases and provide direct legal assistance to poor people?  A recent Pro Bono Institute report shows that law-firm pro bono on poverty-law matters is down. 

The Institute’s Esther Lardent weighs in on the question, and decides that narrowing “pro bono’s” definition will not lead to more/better work on behalf of low-income clients.  Writing in the National Law Journal, Lardent argues:

Whatever the reason for the downturn, would a definition of pro bono limited to legal services for the poor solve the problem and result in more low-income clients served? I believe it would not. Lawyers make a pro bono commitment for many reasons, but one major impetus for many is a personal commitment to a particular legal problem or client demographic. Lawyers who are passionate about international human rights and the rule of law, protecting civil liberties or ensuring a sustainable environment for future generations understandably want to use their skills to pursue their passion. Business lawyers who are averse to litigation are unlikely to take on adversarial matters on a pro bono basis when they would not do so for paying clients. The reality is that choosing pro bono work is often a matter of blending personal interest with client need. Restricting personal choices will not increase poverty law pro bono. It is, rather, far more likely to reduce the total amount of pro bono and the percentage of lawyers who undertake it.

Our goal should be to educate lawyers about the unparalleled need for legal services to the poor. We should put, as our Pro Bono Challenge and American Bar Association Model Rule 6.1 do, a special emphasis on poverty law pro bono (which led to 58 percent of total Challenge law firm hours devoted to pro bono focused on poverty), and review and revamp the processes for referring, accepting and handling pro bono matters for the poor to make them more appealing and more efficiently undertaken.

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