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On Jan. 27 of this year the Texas Supreme Court convened an administrative hearing on legal services to the poor in civil matters. Members of the court, reacting to the information and testimony that was presented, made it clear that more must be done to ensure that all Texans have access to the justice system. The court, not content to simply hold formal hearings, used the opportunity, when it held oral arguments in San Antonio in March, to tour local legal services programs. What you should know about pro bono? Effective pro bono programs are clearly an important and integrated part of legal practice. So what should you know and do as a law student to make pro bono service a proper part of your professional life? Modern legal service programs in the United States consist of two parts: federal and state. Congress annually appropriates money to fund the Legal Service Corp., a national not-for-profit corporation that employs attorneys to represent low-income citizens. These lawyers “specialize” in handling legal problems encountered frequently by low-income citizens. A complementary state component in Texas includes the Texas Interest on Lawyer Trust Account, a.k.a. the IOLTA program. Lawyers frequently receive relatively small sums to be held for short periods of time in client trust accounts. These trust accounts are incapable of earning interest over their pro-rated costs. The Texas Supreme Court has ordered that attorneys’ nominal and short-term individual accounts — those incapable of earning net client interest — be placed in pooled accounts. The cost of remitting interest to a single statewide not-for-profit corporation is low enough to create positive interest income. Our Texas IOLTA program is administered by the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation. Annually the Texas IOLTA program produces about $5 million. Additionally, the Texas Legislature has added fees for state court filings and designated that these fees be remitted to the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation. As the name of the bill makes clear, the collection fees are to be used for basic civil legal services (BCLS) for low-income Texans. Annually the BCLS program generates about $3 million. Both the $5 million in IOLTA money and the $3 million in BCLS money are used, along with a set-aside from the $18 million Texas LSC annual budget, to support pro bono activities in Texas. Pro bono publico — pro bono — literally means “for the public good or welfare.” As the term is employed in legal practice, and public discourse, it means the free rendition of legal services. As stated in the Texas Lawyers’ Creed, lawyers donate their time in discharge of their special professional “responsibility to assure that all persons have access to competent representation regardless of wealth or position in life.” What you should do about pro bono? Students at the Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas are required to participate in a pro bono program, while students at the remaining eight Texas law schools participate in voluntary pro bono programs. A rich variety of opportunities are offered Texas law students under each approach. At SMU, major service areas include domestic violence and law-related education, while additional opportunities for service include tax law, children’s issues, criminal defense, disability law, employment law, guardianship, homelessness, immigration and individual rights. Similar opportunities exist at each of the voluntary Texas law school pro bono programs. Many of the voluntary programs have achieved national prominence over the years. For example, Elma Moreno, private attorney involvement coordinator for West Texas Legal Services in Lubbock, was recently selected president elect of the National Association of Pro Bono Coordinators in recognition of her success with a joint law student and local attorney program. In addition, the Texas Tech University School of Law has created a student award named for Moreno that is awarded annually to a law student volunteer. GOOD TRAINING Our all-too-short review of law school pro bono programs in Texas does highlight an ongoing debate — should there be a mandatory pro bono requirement for every Texas attorney or should we maintain the established voluntary approach? According to Justice Enoch, who serves as a liaison to the State Bar of Texas, creative solutions exist and others must be found to ensure that poor people have access to the courts. And, while lawyers should devote time to their communities and civic entities, the only pro bono efforts of importance to the Supreme Court are true legal services to the poor. That said, as to the voluntary-mandatory debate, Enoch has noted, “The court is not disposed to mandatory pro bono.” Law students who participate in pro bono programs take advantage of an invaluable opportunity to obtain a practical education in the practice of law. Pro bono programs provide volunteers with training programs and mentoring by lawyers experienced in the area of practice. This training can be invaluable in developing your law practice. Additionally, new lawyers can develop skills in client interviewing, counseling and advocacy that simply cannot be developed in a library. Training is only one of the benefits that you receive by participating in pro bono programs. Perhaps an even greater benefit is the personal satisfaction that often results from such work. Pro bono work can be fascinating. And you will often find that the clients are far more appreciative than most fee-paying clients. By assisting those who could not otherwise afford meaningful access to our legal system, you can gain great personal satisfaction and pride. Moreover, you are likely to find that responding to the plight of the poor evokes powerful advocacy. As one lawyer said, “You soon discover the poor can’t afford to buy justice and that you are the only one who can give it to them.” The worth of such public service cannot be overestimated. W. Frank Newton is dean and professor of law at the Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock. Newton is a former president of the State Bar of Texas and was recently recognized as a legal legend for his contributions to pro bono assistance in Texas.

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