Pro bono service could become mandatory for attorneys in Mississippi.

The Mississippi Supreme Court is considering requiring attorneys to perform 20 hours of pro bono service or else pay a $500 fee. If adopted, Mississippi would be the only state to require pro bono service, according to the American Bar Association.

The state high court unveiled the proposal in late August, and public comments are due by Friday. The Mississippi Bar Association plans to send in its comments this week, said General Counsel Adam Kilgore. He declined to reveal the bar’s position on the matter, but said that local attorneys have been buzzing.

“I believe the Supreme Court has received a good deal of comment from bar members, and most of the comments have been in opposition,” he said.

Court spokeswoman Beverly Kraft said that the court has received 109 comments on the proposal as of Monday morning.

Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said when the proposal was unveiled that it was just a “starting point for discussions.”

“I am interested in making sure that the poor have the same access to courts as those who can afford to hire attorneys,” he said in a written statement. “These are challenging economic times. We must be vigilant in making sure there are sufficient funds and people available to represent the poor.”

A recent report by Mississippi’s Access to Justice Commission recommended that the state increase pro bono legal services through a number of initiatives, including giving tax breaks to attorneys who perform pro bono work, and have a better organized and coordinate pro bono program.

Some attorneys questioned the constitutionality of mandating pro bono hours. The existing Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct say that attorneys have a professional responsibility to do pro bono work and suggest at least 20 hours per year. Lawyers in the state may now pay a voluntary $200 fee in lieu of pro bono service.

Mississippi attorneys performed more than 45 hours of pro bono work on average between August 2008 and July 2009, according to the bar association. During that time, the bar received more than $155,000 in contributions form attorneys who did not perform the recommended 20 hours of prop bono service.

Only seven states require attorneys to report pro bono hours, and no state mandates that attorneys do so. In 1993, the ABA revised its model rules to say that attorneys should aspire to perform 50 hours of pro bono work each year.

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.