Pro bono service by members of the bar has been an honored hallmark, and an enduring tradition of the legal profession, which, unfortunately, has not been adequate to meet the growing needs of the indigent. Enticing larger numbers of attorneys continues to be an enduring challenge that has been exacerbated by the current state of the economy.
Registration figures for 2009 compiled by the New York State Office of Court Administration indicates that there are 253,810 attorneys registered in New York, 157,778 of whom have home addresses in the state. With the ranks of the indigent in need of legal representation growing so rapidly, it is likely that even if the aspirational goal of 20 hours of pro bono service per attorney was met, there would probably still be a significant number of those who remain without needed legal representation.
There are among us attorneys who earn, and continue to earn, six, seven and yes, even eight figures a year from their law practices, some of whom, perhaps, have gone through most, or even all of their careers without having rendered any pro bono service. (Unfortunately, the Office of Court Administration does not issue annual pro bono surveys.)
Though not a substitute for pro bono service, but as an inducement to commit these attorneys to perform pro bono service, perhaps a modest biannual assessment of up to 2 percent of their income from their practice of law could be required to be paid into a special fund for our legal service entities.
The American Bar Association has periodically conducted surveys1 to measure, among other things, how many attorneys commit to pro bono service, what type, for how long and what motivates them. In some states, responding to surveys is voluntary, in others, it is mandatory.
In a few states, where responding to surveys was mandatory, an effort followed to make pro bono service mandatory. All of these efforts have failed.
It should be noted that the state of Florida does have one county (Orange) that requires either a donation or mandatory pro bono service. Some members of the bar may consider that option a solution; most, I believe, would not.
Time will tell if the current overwhelming need for pro bono service will impact the debate within the profession and bring us closer to meeting what is considered by too many as an “aspirational” goal, rather than a fundamental duty to help those in need.
Our mandate took place when we were admitted to the bar. If all of us considered the concept “giving back to the public” as a personal and professional commitment, and render some reasonable pro bono service annually, there would no longer be a debate within the profession on this issue.
Recent reports indicate that a significant number of laid off lawyers, including some of those recently hired, but who have had their starting dates delayed, have chosen to devote their time working with indigent clients or with legal service organizations doing the same.
How timely it is, indeed, on this Law Day 2010, that I have this opportunity on behalf of the 48 bar association members of the Network of Bar Leaders to publicly thank all of these noble lawyers for what they are doing, and for enhancing the public’s view of our profession.
You make us all proud of your commitment!
M. Barry Levy is the president of Sharretts, Paley, Carter & Blauvelt.
1. See Supporting Justice II, “A Report on the Pro Bono Work of America’s Lawyers.” Copyright 2009 American Bar Association.