I have written this column from many places: my parents’ couch, my local Starbucks, my bed, etc. I have yet to try it from atop a soapbox, but here goes.
It is common knowledge that the need for pro bono services is increasing as funding for pro bono organizations is decreasing (or ceasing altogether). As explained by ABA President Stephen Zack, in a letter opposing cuts to funding for the Legal Services Corporation, “[f]inancially, many Americans are still hanging on by their fingernails. The worst thing that could happen is to lose the place people can turn to when their money woes create legal problems.”
Similarly, as explained by Esther Lardent, President of the Pro Bono Institute, in her address at the 2011 Annual Seminar and Forum on In-House Pro Bono, with regard to the impact of the economic downturn, “for pro bono . . . the worst is yet to come.” Lardent explains that the loss of funding to pro bono organizations has posed a “justice crisis,” and the need for legal assistance will increase.
So, as a result of the economy, more people need legal aid, but fewer legal aid organizations are able to meet those needs. Clearly if these people are to be served, private lawyers are going to need to take the laboring oar — and they have. According to Lardent, pro bono hours performed by major law firms increased in 2009 (2010 data is not yet available).
What about small law firms?
I know small firms do pro bono work. I recently spoke with an associate at a ten-person law firm with such a commitment to pro bono that every lawyer had an active pro bono matter. But are the majority of small firms taking on pro bono cases?
At first blush, it appears that there are some impediments preventing some small law firms from making a pro bono commitment. For example, the main motivator for taking on pro bono assignments is absent in small law firms. Many Biglaw litigation departments view pro bono as a way to train young associates. The young associate is able to sharpen her skills on pro bono cases in order to later perform more meaningful tasks on client work. Yet this is not true in small firms. Indeed, it is almost universally true that associates at small law firms get substantive client work from the start.
According to a recent study by LexisNexis an Probono.net, however, this should not be an impediment. Training is not the top reason why lawyers opt to take on pro bono work. The overwhelming reason is personal fulfillment.
Maybe it is that small firms have too few attorneys to make a meaningful contribution and do not merit a formal pro bono program? No, according to the American Bar Association.
So there are no impediments. Well then, here is the challenge to small law firms: make a serious commitment to pro bono work. And if the sad facts about the “justice crisis” are not enough to get you jazzed about pro bono work, let me appeal to your bottom line. Pro bono work may lead to future business. Lisa Scruggs — a partner at Jenner & Block, and one of the Crain’s Chicago Business 40 Under 40 — secured an important new client based on her pro bono work in education.
If you are a small law firm making a commitment to pro bono work, please email me, so we can highlight the work that is being done. Similarly, if you are a part of a legal aid foundation and have some initiatives that would be ideally suited for a small firm practitioner, please email me. Also, if you are inspired to do good but don’t know what to do, check out this link. There are countless pro bono opportunities out there, just waiting to be taken by small-firm lawyers with a big commitment to justice.