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Oklahoma Lawyers Making Equal Justice for all a Reality

Judges back more pro bono work from attorneys

Thursday, April 12, 2007

It's an open secret in the law world -- most attorneys don't do pro bono work.

Colorado Supreme Court justices are out to change that by asking lawyers at Denver firms to commit to doing 50 hours of volunteer legal work per year with poor people or with groups that help poor people.


The court in 1999 turned down a measure to make such work mandatory.

While helping poor people deal with the justice system "is at the heart of the profession," lawyers just don't make volunteering a priority these days, said state Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs.

Because of that, one of every two potential clients looking for legal help is turned way, Hobbs said, quoting statistics from Colorado Legal Services, a nonprofit group that works with poor people.

Those who are eligible for free legal services make $1,021 or less in gross income per month under federal poverty income guidelines, or $2,038 or less for a family of four, said Debra Wagner, Metro Volunteer Lawyers, another legal nonprofit group.

Other clients pay $300 in attorney's fees, plus $299 in filing fees for bankruptcy cases, $100 for wills and $55 an hour for all other types of assistance.

The help agency sees about 2,100-2,400 cases per year.

"Pro bono fell off in the '90s and 2000s, because there's such a pressure to get billable hours and get money in the door," Hobbs said. "I'd like to think the brightest [lawyers] can get these law firms to realize it will be in their self-interest."

In 2006, the first year of the judge group's emphasis on pro bono work, 33 Denver-area firms followed through on commitments to do 50 hours per attorney on average, Hobbs said. The Colorado Supreme Court honored those firms at a luncheon in March. So far this year, 45 firms have signed up for the program.

"It's pleasing that 33 firms made it, and none who signed up dropped out," Hobbs said. "But it's still far under what we'd like to see."

Attorneys at the Kutak Rock law office do a lot of community-based work, but it can be for projects such as the Humane Society and other nonprofit groups that don't benefit poor people, said Jim Arundel, managing partner at the firm, which has 70 attorneys in Denver.

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