The article, “Courts Offer Olive Branch on Pro Bono Rule” (NYLJ, May 29) appropriately reports strong reservations by the bar on the issues of attorneys’ personal privacy, and on the “camel’s nose under the tent” concerns that the pro bono reporting rule may be “a possible prelude to mandatory pro bono beyond the courts’ voluntary, aspirational goal of 50 hours per attorney each year.”
Of no lesser concern to a significant number of lawyers is the question of how “pro bono” is to be defined.
When I and a large group of other successful bar examinees were admitted to practice in New York in 1988, the motion for our admission, made by a seasoned attorney before the Appellate Division, was described as “an excellent example of pro bono service.” Is unpaid service on bar association committees considered to be pro bono work? Is my service as a volunteer arbitrator in the Small Claims part of the New York City Civil Court? What about my participation last year in some visitations to some congressional offices on Capitol Hill on behalf of a group of non-profit organizations, or my testimony the next day at an IRS rulemaking hearing regarding unrelated issues? And what about something as simple and common as an attorney giving unpaid professional aid to his or her local house of worship or favorite charity?
The term “pro bono” comes from the Latin “pro bono pubico,” which means “for the public good.” There are causes other than impecunious individuals that inure to the public weal and which attorneys, by dint of their training, experience, and law licensure, are uniquely situated to aid by rendering unpaid volunteer services.
The very regulatory subparagraph 22 NYCRR § 118.1(e)(14) is arguably susceptible to two divergent constructions as to whether the phrase “made to organizations primarily or substantially engaged in the provision of legal services to the underserved and to the poor” pertains only to lawyers’ monetary contributions, or whether it also pertains to the unpaid services rendered by the attorneys.
If it be the latter, then the system is wide open to manipulation along lines of political orientation, an evil the American public is now witnessing in various and sundry governmental quarters. The rank and file bar membership needs credible assurances from the Office of Court Administration that the pro bono rule will not be used as a pretext to compel unpaid labor for a “politically correct” cause towards which the attorney has no empathy, or, perhaps, great revulsion.
Kenneth H. Ryesky
East Northport, N.Y.