At first blush, pro bono legal work seems like a win-win situation for both attorneys and clients. Attorneys use their skills to help people who could otherwise not afford their services and, in doing so, raise their profiles and reputations within their communities. People who can not afford legal counsel are able to avail themselves of the professional services so necessary in the complicated, high-stakes arena of law.
However, the decision whether or not to do pro bono work is far more complex for most attorneys. Lawyers take on pro bono work for a myriad of reasons. According to Sharon Browning, Executive Director of Philadelphia VIP, a public service organization that serves as a pro bono clearinghouse, one of the motivations for firms to take pro bono cases is trying to stay competitive. "There is the sense that to attract the best and brightest of the law school graduates, you [had] better have some pro bono projects to attract them." She also notes that firms consider pro bono to be "good training for young associates."
Another incentive for some pro bono work is notoriety. While death penalty cases can take years to settle, big firms will take them on instead of smaller, easier cases. "It's glamorous," Browning says. "I don't want to minimize it; it's essential work. It's vital on a human level; saving a life. It has an obvious, visceral result. Other cases are not quite so obvious. Saving housing for a family is critical, but it's not as sexy."
Browning also points out that there are multitudes of lawyers who would like to make public service or pro bono work their full-time job, but are unable to do so. "There isn't the money to hire them," Browning says. "We have this conversation all the time in the legal service community. We spend all this time, money, and effort to recruit people who don't want to do this, but can't hire the people who do want to do it, because there's no money." A 2002 study by the National Association of Legal Career Professionals (NALP) shows that a majority of public interest and state government attorneys have a starting salary of less than $34,000 a year. The median salary for first-year associates at private firms is $100,000.
Browning is not convinced that making pro bono work mandatory is going to improve the situation. "Lawyers don't want to be told they have to do this. Only four states—Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, and Nevada—have adopted mandatory pro bono [guidelines], and six states give credit for handling a pro bono case, but there's no empirical data evaluating if it actually works." She goes on to add, "The other issue with mandatory work is whether or not it's effective."
One "out" that states and firms offer attorneys is to make a donation to public service agencies in lieu of providing free legal services. The state of Florida requires that attorneys submit pro bono reports each year or contribute $350 to "legal aid organizations." When asked if these buyouts are cop-outs, Browning demurs. "Mandatory rules with a buyout would go a long way to hiring the people who do want to do this." With approximately 17,000 licensed lawyers in Pennsylvania, if every attorney opted for the buyout, it would funnel $5.95 million into public service coffers.
Another issue is defining what constitutes "pro bono." Barbara King, a partner at Gordon, Siegel in Latham, NY, was instrumental in designing and implementing her firm's mandatory pro bono policy. In doing so, she defined pro bono work as "direct delivery of legal services to the indigent. Sitting on the board of a local art institution doesn't count." Browning supports this definition. "Lots of attorneys will say they are doing pro bono. The majority will say that they are doing it, but it's representing a friend's friend, or they're coaching their son's soccer team or doing work for the opera company."
Browning does feel that pro bono work is gaining popularity in the legal field, despite a resistance toward mandates. "I do think that legal culture is changing very slowly to be friendly towards pro bono. There are many pro bono attorneys that do it because they really believe justice is for all and it's an attorney's responsibility to do that. But there are plenty who don't believe that. They call it involuntary servitude."
One way that Browning's group helps facilitate pro bono work is to help match firms with the types of cases they want to handle. When a firm approached Philadelphia VIP about pro bono work, Browning helped it understand how to go about it. "They said, 'What we're really interested in doing is the elderly and veterans,'" Browning explains. "We referred them to the senior law center and the homeless. They said, 'No, we don't want to work with the homeless. We want to work with veterans.' Well, 70% of the homeless are veterans, so they started working with the homeless."
Even with pro bono work becoming more common, recruiting attorneys and firms to provide the needed services is a full-time job. "You have to keep recruiting because people get tired or don't want to keep doing it," Browning says. "We do case fairs at the big firms. We do new associate programs. We work with different sections of the bar to promote pro bono. We work with other associations, the trial lawyers, the defense attorneys. That's an ongoing need—to recruit new people."
Despite the controversy surrounding pro bono work, Browning feels that it benefits a community in many ways. "There is some secondary gain in bridging the huge and growing gap between people of means and people without. It's really good to put them in touch with each other so that the gap is shortened. There is another secondary benefit of educating both clients and lawyers about these issues." In sum, Browning maintains that pro bono work is essential in American society. "Providing access to justice for low-income people—that's the bottom line, what it is all about."