Lawyers may find themselves in high demand in 2020. Historically, economic downturns such as the one caused by COVID-19 have resulted in an upswing of litigation and arbitration, and business owners are frantically trying to stay in compliance with employment laws and shifting guidelines while protecting their employees and profits. At the same time, the heartbreaking deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have called forth new attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and civil justice matters.
Due to the nature of these catalysts – one a public health disaster, the other rooted in injustice – attorneys may be called to take on some of these issues as pro bono cases.
The ABA Young Lawyers Division’s Disaster Legal Services Program and Paladin joined forces earlier this year to create the first pro bono portal for national disaster relief, simplifying the process of connecting volunteer lawyers with those who need their help the most. To quote the ABA’s recent article regarding the portal, “The centralized, sortable database will list opportunities to serve those impacted by COVID-19, as well as the recent tornadoes in Tennessee and earthquakes in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and future disasters as they occur.”
This portal will allow attorneys to filter by practice area, type of commitment, ability to be accomplished remotely, and more. Legal organizations and state pro bono hotlines will be able to add opportunities to the portal. Previously, connecting attorneys to those in need due to national disasters tended to be more impromptu and scattered; for attorneys who want to volunteer but aren’t sure where to start, the ABA Disaster Relief Pro Bono Portal could be a game changer.
And attorneys who are more concerned with their bottom line than public service may still want to pay attention – technically, they might be required to perform 50 hours of pro bono work per year.
This mandate comes from ABA Model Rule 6.1: “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.” Each state sets its own official ethics rules, but most include some variation of the ABA’s pro bono guidelines.
But why do these pro bono requirements exist in the first place? Attorney Jonathan Wolf offers an explanation in his recent Above the Law article, saying, “Those of us with a formal legal education have a state-sanctioned monopoly on the provision of legal services. Part of the bargain for making it a crime for nonlawyers to engage in the unauthorized practice of law is that those of us who are licensed are supposed to provide some work free of charge to people who are unable to afford the exorbitant hourly rates we charge for our time.”
He goes on to note that only a small percentage of lawyers engage in pro bono work, and even in a state such as Illinois – one of nine with mandatory pro bono reporting – about one third of lawyers actually report doing pro bono work. In states with voluntary pro bono reporting, the number is even lower, with 3.4 percent of lawyers in Minnesota certifying that they did 50 hours of pro bono work in 2019.
It’s possible that a much larger percentage of Minnesota lawyers are engaging in pro bono work and simply not voluntarily reporting, but the fact that only one third of lawyers seem to be doing the work in a state with mandatory reporting is concerning.
As the country continues to wrestle with the fallout from COVID-19 and demands for justice from underserved communities, there’s significant opportunity for attorneys to step up and use their specialized knowledge and skills for good. Let’s hope that along with making plans for reopening (or for more remote work), the legal community also finds a renewed commitment to helping those in need.