The New York State Bar this month made it a requirement for all lawyers to carry out 50 hours of pro bono work before being admitted. This is an attempt to reduce the number of unrepresented litigants flooding the court system since the start of the economic downturn. This requirement applies only to trainee lawyers waiting to be admitted – might the next step be to require practising lawyers to complete a certain number of pro bono hours each year? Should this idea be explored here?
As the number of people in need of free legal assistance rises, the pro bono sector needs to think creatively to find ways of meeting demand. LawWorks is currently carrying out a survey of the legal profession on this and a number of other pro bono related issues to aid our thinking behind this process. Essentially, we want to know how we can increase participation in pro bono activities. The recent developments in New York would suggest that regulatory change would be enough – surely it is not that simple?
There are no UK regulatory provisions specifically covering pro bono. It is purely voluntary. A number of UK law firms set yearly targets for pro bono work – usually around 50 hours per lawyer, or 3%-6% of billable hours. For the firms that choose to set targets, it seems to work really well in practice. The targets probably have little or no impact on the lawyers at the firm who are not interested in pro bono, but those with an interest will be reminded to make time to do it, and they can be sure that they have the support of their superiors.
However, a target is one thing, a mandatory requirement quite another. At LawWorks we have the support of thousands of lawyers because they are passionate about using their skills to help others and/or they see the developmental benefits, both personal and professional, in doing so. The lawyers who support us do so because they want to.
They treat their pro bono clients the same as their fee-paying clients, and they are sensitive to the needs of the sort of person who would qualify for pro bono assistance, that is someone who is in such a desperate financial position that they cannot afford to pay. Most also believe that pro bono is good for their professional development.
However, not all lawyers share this passion for pro bono. In fact, many are against it either on commercial grounds, or because they feel it lets the government off the hook when it comes to the provision of state funding for legal services. If pro bono was mandatory, what kind of service will the dispassionate lawyers provide? What would be an appropriate punishment for non-compliance? I cannot imagine anything more severe than that which is imposed for failure to undertake the required number of continuing professional development training hours, for example. If penalties are not severe, might they choose simply to ignore the mandatory requirement?
In my view, regulatory change might increase the number of pro bono hours (and it might not), but it will not bring out the professionalism that truly drives pro bono.
Please complete the pro bono survey before the closing date on 5 October.
Lia Moses is a caseworker at LawWorks, a national charity working with solicitors to support, promote and encourage a commitment to pro bono across the profession. She blogs for the Gazette