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Attorney E-Newsletter

February 2011 – Pro Bono Issue

Supreme Court Calls on Pennsylvania Lawyers to Meet Pro Bono Challenge

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has issued a call to all Pennsylvania lawyers to take at least one new pro bono matter or to continue to work on an ongoing pro bono matter through a legal aid provider or an organized pro bono program. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille addressed this letter, dated January 7, 2011, to all Pennsylvania attorneys:

Dear Pennsylvania Attorney:

Pennsylvania is dealing with a civil legal aid crisis where half the people who appear at a legal aid office and who qualify for legal aid are denied such help due to lack of resources. Despite special fees and a new school loan forgiveness program for civil legal aid attorneys, our system of justice does not have the sufficient professional resources to meet the growing need for such services in these tough economic times.

Pennsylvania lawyers have a proud tradition of pro bono service, but now is the time for us to do more. Pro bono service by Pennsylvania's lawyers cannot be a replacement for adequate funding of the courts and the legal aid system, but the need for help among the poor to access justice is so significant that the legal community cannot wait for the funding deficiencies to be remedied.

As Chief Justice, I join with Gretchen Mundorff, President of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, in urging every Pennsylvania attorney to take at least one new pro bono matter or to continue to work on an ongoing pro bono matter through a legal aid provider or an organized pro bono program. If you are unable to take a pro bono case, I encourage you to make a donation to support your local or statewide civil legal aid and pro bono programs. Every lawyer can review the resources at www.palawhelp.org, and each attorney can also register on www.paprobono.net to add to the resources on that site.

There are nearly 70,000 attorneys licensed in Pennsylvania. From all accounts, approximately 10% of those attorneys render some form of pro bono service on an annual basis. The resources that would be available to those with the inability to access legal services in our Commonwealth if every lawyer stepped forward are staggering.

Sincerely,

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille

In a letter to the PBA House of Delegates, Gretchen Mundorff, President of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, adds,

The time has never been more critical for lawyers to provide pro bono legal services to the poor and underserved of our Commonwealth. With the downturn in the economy, we are facing a decrease in both federal and state funding for legal services and in the funds generated by our IOLTA accounts as a result of low interest rates. Yet, the downturn in the economy has increased the need for legal services as the number of mortgage foreclosures and domestic violence cases has increased.

While many Pennsylvania lawyers already provide pro bono services, the Pennsylvania Bar Association joins with Chief Justice Castille in embracing this opportunity to do more to help those less fortunate.

More information and assistance for lawyers interested in helping meet the crisis in legal representation through pro bono work is available at http://www.paprobono.net.

Civil Legal Aid In Pennsylvania

By Sam Milkes, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, Inc., and Alfred Azen, Executive Director, Pennsylvania IOLTA Board

As this is being written, budget proposals in Washington would cut federal funding for legal aid by nearly 20%, or even eliminate all of the federal funding, and on the state level, a $4 billion revenue shortfall exerts great pressure for state funding reductions to legal aid. Extraordinary efforts over the past two years, such as the infusion of federal stimulus money ($4 million), a temporary increase in filing fees ($2.8 million), and an increase in the attorney assessment fee ($1.5 million) have allowed for the relatively stable, but reduced, provision of legal assistance for indigent Pennsylvanians in the face of a precipitous drop in IOLTA funding due to historically low interest rates. The first two of these infusions expire next fiscal year. These reductions will mean a greater threat to access to justice in Pennsylvania for those who have nowhere else to turn.

These significant actual and potential funding losses are occurring at a time when increased requests for assistance are being received from those recently unemployed during the “great recession.” Many more people face serious problems, such as the potential loss of their homes (legal aid helped nearly 10,000 such clients last year), and pressing family medical expenses. Some clients are victims of domestic violence (about 12,000 represented annually), and others are involved in disputes over the best interests of their children. A recent study by the Legal Services Corporation, “Documenting the Justice Gap,” revealed one of every two people who contacted a legal aid office in Pennsylvania, eligible for and in need of legal aid representation, had to be turned away due to a lack of resources.

How You Can Help

The Pennsylvania Bar Association adopted a resolution in 2007 encouraging each Pennsylvania attorney to comply with his or her county bar association’s pro bono goals, or if the county bar association does not have a goal, to maintain at least one active pro bono case in his or her caseload each year, or make a significant contribution to legal aid. Many legal aid programs administer pro bono programs in partnership with local county bar associations. A variety of pro bono opportunities are available. Many programs provide qualified Continuing Legal Education (CLE) in substantive areas of pro bono representation, provide mentoring, offer model representation documents, provide malpractice insurance, and offer other forms of support. A particularly unique pro bono program which originated at Neighborhood Legal Services Association in western Pennsylvania, Older and Wiser,™ is being expanded statewide. Organized by legal aid personnel in conjunction with Pennsylvania legislators, volunteer attorneys provide seminars in elder law issues at sites arranged by the legislator’s staff. Attorneys have the opportunity to meet with potential clients after the presentations. Contact your local legal aid office (visit www.palegalaid.net/resources/probono to find yours) and volunteer.

Contributions can be made to local legal aid programs in lieu of providing actual case representation. Additionally, the PA IOLTA Board provides funding to establish new, or to reinvigorate existing, pro bono efforts in counties throughout Pennsylvania. Attorneys have been making contributions for this purpose for many years through the Pro Bono Initiative program. Visit www.paiolta.org to see how those contributions have been used. In the near future, a hyperlink to the PA IOLTA Board Web site will be placed at the bottom of the online registration form for attorneys to download the form to make a voluntary Pro Bono Initiative contribution.

For more information about legal aid in Pennsylvania, visit www.palegalaid.net, or for information about the PA IOLTA Board, which operates under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, visit www.paiolta.org.

Pro Bono Under Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct

Rule 6.1 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct addresses the lawyer’s responsibility to participate in pro bono representation of those unable to pay for legal services. It states:

Rule 6.1 Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service

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, 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.

Rule 6.1 does not create mandatory duties, such that a lawyer will be subject to discipline for failing to comply with them. Its inclusion in the Rules of Professional Conduct does, however, attest to the importance the profession places on this service as a part of the lawyer’s ethical responsibilities. Comment 4 to the rule adds, “Law firms should act reasonably to enable and encourage all lawyers in the firm to provide the pro bono legal services called for by this Rule.”

Report Shows Law Firms Didn’t Abandon Pro Bono in Recession

As most of us well know, the recession of 2008-2009 hit the legal profession hard, as it did so many others. Many expected that beleaguered law firms would abandon their commitment to pro bono, especially with cutbacks in the ranks of young associates who handle much of the pro bono workload in many firms. The 2010 Pro Bono report by The American Lawyer magazine found that while the profession’s commitment to pro bono grew less in the last year than it had in previous years, a feared decline in pro bono commitments did not take place. Pro bono activities by firms charted by American Lawyer logged 5.7 million hours of pro bono work last year, a 2 percent increase from 2008. The average number of hours per lawyer was unchanged. The percentage of lawyers with 20 hours or more of pro bono work decreased by 1 percent, to 47.5%. Out of 99 firms charted, 25 posted double-digit increases, while only 14 saw double-digit decreases.

The full report by American Lawyer is posted here.

Eight Reasons Why Pro Bono Is Good for You

Georgia lawyer Dawn Levine has published a list of the “Top 8 Reasons to Take Pro Bono Cases.” Briefly, her list includes:

  1. For every pro bono case you take, that is one attorney joke that is undermined.
  2. Pro bono allows me to continue to pay my mortgage and still hold on to my dream of changing the world.
  3. Democracy demands it.
  4. God does not really care if I am "this close" to a billable hours bonus.
  5. The economy stinks. Foreclosures and aggressive collections are up, and more people than ever need pro bono services.
  6. The economy stinks, parte dos. Budget cuts have reduced government help to low-income people.
  7. It makes me a better attorney.
  8. It recharges my batteries.

She didn’t even count the cookies a grateful client baked her.

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