Pro bono service is beloved by recruiters pitching firms to law students, concerning to those same law firms' accountants obsessing over the bottom line and desperately needed by legal aid organizations providing services. As an opportunity to develop skills as well as help others, pro bono service plays an important role in the practice of young lawyers. Even in a world where law firms have become multimillion-dollar businesses, pro bono service is no mere relic of a bygone age. Rather, pro bono service is a fundamental feature of what it means to be an attorney. Although the practice of law is now impacted by technology and legal issues that an attorney from the early 1800s never could have conceived, that earlier iteration of a "Philadelphia lawyer" probably would have recognized the three reasons why pro bono service continues to matter. Why should we serve? Today, as ever, attorneys should provide pro bono service because we are lucky. We should serve because there is need. And we should serve because we can.
On June 2, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, gave a commencement address at Princeton University. In his remarks, Bernanke made the interesting observation that meritocracy, while better than alternative systems, involves far more luck and less fairness than we realize: "A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate — these are the folks who reap the largest rewards."
Bernanke was, of course, talking about the types of people who graduate from Princeton. But he may as well have been talking about attorneys. Surely, some of us have been luckier than others: luckier in our LSAT score or ability to afford expensive law schools; luckier in our innate ability to memorize and synthesize information or cogently argue a difficult point; or luckier in our finding gainful employment in a tough economy. With that said, attorneys are, by and large, well educated and able to financially provide for themselves and their families. We may not all be millionaires, but we are fortunate.
As Bernanke recognized, with luck comes the responsibility for people "to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world and to share their luck with others." Our profession has always fundamentally understood this point, and pro bono service is how it has been expressed. For example, the Philadelphia Bar Association has long had a model pro bono policy available to law firms, under which lawyers are given credit for time spent on up to 50 hours of pro bono work per year. The Pennsylvania Bar Association captures this sentiment by featuring a quote on its website by Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund: "Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time."
Next, we should take on pro bono representations because there is, unfortunately, a deep need for our skills. That the gap between the very rich and the rest of the country has increased is not shocking news. But the ramifications of this growing disparity on the legal system should give us serious pause. With some exceptions, there is no constitutional right to counsel for civil matters, as in Turner v. Rogers, 131 S. Ct. 2507 (2011). As a result, many people who lack the resources or sophistication to find legal assistance must go without.
In a recent speech before the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee on access to justice, former Pennsylvania Bar Association President Thomas G. Wilkinson Jr. explained the full extent of this service gap. He noted that a national study by the Legal Services Corp. found that 50 percent of eligible clients are turned away by legal aid programs because of a lack of resources. Wilkinson also cited a different study showing that low-income individuals only have about 20 percent of their legal needs met. Put plainly, there is a significant need for increased access to legal services. Whether it is getting Social Security benefits or fighting an unfair eviction, the most vulnerable members of our communities are not able to protect their rights without the help of organizations like the Homeless Advocacy Project and Philadelphia VIP. And, in turn, those organizations are unable to respond to our community's needs without the pro bono efforts of attorneys from the private sector.
It is worth noting that pro bono service does not just meet a need for our communities; it can provide tremendous opportunities for lawyers just starting their careers. As a young attorney, it can sometimes be difficult to get hands-on experience with managing clients, taking depositions or arguing in court. Pro bono service is a great way to develop those skills from an early stage in one's career, and to engage meaningfully with the impact the law can have on individuals. As a first-year associate, I found myself in federal court arguing on behalf of a father seeking the return of his son from his ex-wife. It was my first time in any court and the stakes could not have been higher for my client. Fortunately, we were successful, and even though it occurred early in my career, that case will always remain among my professional highlights.
Finally, and perhaps most basically, we should provide pro bono service for the very simple reason that we can. I recently read an essay in The New York Times by a writer, Laird Hunt, who had volunteered his time at writing workshops in the Republic of Congo. Although he found the experience to be meaningful and enjoyable, what he remembered most keenly was an instance in which he did not live up to his ideals. In his words: "One hot day in another country, I had some water and someone else was thirsty and I did not give him what I so easily could have."
For young attorneys, pro bono service can provide deeply meaningful and rewarding work that energizes our overall practice. Moreover, it is service that takes advantage of our abilities. Even the least experienced lawyer has the ability to use his or her skills to help others. And, finally, we have the means: Most law firms and companies actively encourage pro bono service, and organizations around our communities provide a variety of ways to contribute. After a long career, we hopefully will remember our time spent serving those less fortunate, and not have cause to lament those we did not help, as the essayist regretted his unshared water.
Pro bono service can and should remain a vital part of the modern practice of law, just as valid today as it was 100 years ago. Indeed, it is needed now more than ever.
Michael J. Newman is an associate in the litigation department of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller. He has broad experience in complex commercial litigation involving contractual disputes and insurance coverage issues. He has counseled clients facing serious allegations such as securities fraud, insider trading and breach of fiduciary duties.