Pro Bono, Public Interest

Mississippi: Finally Doing Something Right, or Still Unhappy with 13th Amendment?

Convicts, or Mississippi lawyers?

Can Mississippi force lawyers to do pro bono work?

That’s the question state bar officials are thinking about, as reported in the ABA Journal. A number of Mississippi lawyers are objecting to a proposal that would require them to either (1) spend 20 hours a year representing the poor or (2) contribute $500 to the state bar for legal services programs.

One of these days, Mississippi is going to do something objectively good and moral and not at all confusing. But today is not that day…

On the one hand, one likes the thought of a state bar focusing its lawyers on the plight of the poor and the underserved. One of the best things about the legal profession is the expectation that lawyers serve the public, not just themselves. Committing 20 hours a year to the cause of clients who cannot pay sounds downright noble.

On the other hand, doesn’t forcing somebody to be noble and charitable kind of ruin it? Isn’t several hours of community service a fairly standard punishment for wrongdoing? How can Mississippi just force lawyers to spend 20 hours a year doing something they don’t want to do?

Oh, I’m sorry, Mississippi is just contemplating forcing broke lawyers to carry out community service like they are members of a chain gang. Rich lawyers can buy their way out of this charity with $500.

Not to get all “historical” on you, but doesn’t this remind anybody of the old Confederate draft policy? Back in the day, rich southerners could buy themselves out of the draft by hiring a substitute to take their place. The policy didn’t go over well in 1863; will it go over a whole lot better in 2010?

And speaking of 1863, I thought we covered the whole “involuntary servitude” thing. There was an entire proclamation about this. Are there other examples where a professional organization forces its members to work for free? Because as noble as pro bono work is, let’s not lose sight of the fact that under normal circumstances, lawyers charge money for their time and their legal advice. It’s their labor. And Mississippi is contemplating a mandate that lawyers labor for no compensation.

This might be hard for Mississippi to understand, but forcing people to work for free is wrong. And illegal. I’m positive we had an entire war to decide this question.

Mississippi Weighs Mandatory Pro Bono, to Lawyers’ Dismay [ABA Journal]

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