The gap between the need for legal services and the services available for low-income individuals in the United States continues to widen, with more than 80 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income people going unmet.
While the United States’ per capita rate of lawyers is among the world’s highest, there are not enough legal service lawyers to assist the number of low-income individuals in need. In 2009, New York legal service providers reportedly turned away 50 percent of eligible low-income New Yorkers due to lack of resources, and although more recent figures were not available, it’s a safe bet that in 2013, it’s way more than 50 percent. The unmet legal needs among the underserved are so great that all sophisticated and competent resources to serve them, including in-house counsel working in states outside their home jurisdictions, must be tapped.
In-house pro bono programs have grown exponentially in recent years. According to Corporate Pro Bono, which is a global partnership project of the Pro Bono Institute and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) that empowers and supports in-house attorneys in their pro bono efforts, many of the Fortune 500 companies and a majority of the Fortune 100 companies have either set up or are moving to establish formal pro bono programs for the lawyers in their legal departments both in the United States and around the world. As a result, the global public discourse is no longer whether to do pro bono, but how to get it done.
Supporting pro bono legal services is a company’s opportunity to promote equal justice to all members of the community, assist in the professional development of young lawyers, improve recruiting and increase employee morale. Studies have shown that 84 percent of executives at large companies see direct bottom-line benefits of corporate social responsibility.
Currently, in-house corporate legal departments are providing a range of pro bono services that include staffing neighborhood legal clinics for community-based nonprofit organizations and microentrepreneurs; negotiating with school districts on behalf of children with disabilities to obtain reasonable accommodation; working in the courts to obtain protective orders for victims of domestic violence; researching state law to support appellate litigation; advocating on behalf of unaccompanied immigrant minors; and drafting legislation to assist women exploited in the workplace in developing countries.
Recognizing the obvious benefits of corporate pro bono representation, the national movement authorizing in-house counsel who are barred outside of their jurisdiction to practice pro bono is under way. On January 17, the Minnesota Supreme Court amended the state’s Rules for Admission to the Bar, noting that a lawyer licensed as house counsel or temporary house counsel may provide pro bono legal representation to a client referred to the lawyer through an approved legal services provider. By amending the rule to include temporary counsel, the court followed, in part, guidance ACC provided in a comment letter on November 7, 2012.
We continue to press other state bar regulators around the country to allow authorized in-house counsel to provide pro bono services without ­unnecessary restrictions. Such restrictions have included requiring affiliation with a legal services provider or other supervision.
ACC urged the Illinois Supreme Court to open up the state’s practice laws to eliminate unnecessary restrictions on the types of pro bono work that in-house lawyers with out-of-state licenses can engage in. On April 8, the court amended the rules. The expanded opportunities will allow in-house lawyers to show the importance of pro bono work to them.
Colorado and Virginia amended their practice rules in 2006 and 2011, respectively, but without the unnecessary restrictions. Colorado allows and encourages certified in-house counsel to provide voluntary pro bono services to indigent persons and organizations serving them, subject to Colorado’s professional-conduct rules. Virginia also allows and encourages registered in-house counsel to provide voluntary pro bono services, subject to professional-conduct and court rules.
Despite the growth of corporate pro bono, the statistics are still disconcerting. Four out of five low-income individuals and families who had a major life problem capable of being resolved in the justice system did not get assistance. Documenting the Justice Gap in America: An Updated Report of the Legal Services Corporation, September 2005 (updated September 2009). This chasm is not only doing a disservice to our communities but is having an adverse impact on our judicial system. .
The good news is that there is a budget-neutral action that states can take to begin to answer the unmet need: States with practice rules that serve as barriers to in-house counsel pro bono (such as California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Ohio and the District of Columbia) should amend their rules to allow in-house counsel to represent, pro bono, underserved individuals and nonprofit organizations, free from unnecessary restrictions. Doing so will ensure that the private bar is fully supporting the role it can play in addressing the crisis in legal services, and will also afford in-house counsel the opportunity to efficiently provide pro bono assistance to communities in need.
Pro bono work alone cannot fill the widening gap between legal needs and available assistance, but we must continue the momentum and leverage all available resources through pro bono work. As ACC member Randal S. Milch, executive vice president and general counsel of Verizon, noted, "This is no time for thousands of in-house attorneys to be forced to sit on the sidelines." "Letting In-House Counsel Serve Their Communities Through Pro Bono Services," Corporate Counsel, October 29, 2012. At ACC, we could not agree more, and therefore I call upon state bar leaders and chief justices to work toward removing the barriers to pro bono service so we can put these talented in-house counsel to work in service of the most vulnerable in our communities!
Veta T. Richardson is president and chief executive officer of the Association of Corporate Counsel.