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The Pro Bono Policies Worth Adopting in Every State

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Pro Bono Policies Worth Adopting in Every State

"When individuals in the United States face civil legal issues, they do not have a constitutional right to legal counsel and therefore must secure paid counsel, qualify for free legal aid assistance or proceed pro se. It is therefore no surprise that a justice gap exists in the United States for low-income and modest-means Americans attempting to navigate the civil legal system. Studies consistently show that roughly 80 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans go unmet. That percentage increases greatly when evaluating the unmet legal needs of the working poor who do not qualify for legal aid assistance, but nevertheless cannot afford an attorney. As a result, absent a complete system overhaul or a significant infusion of funding to support legal aid organizations — realities that appear unlikely within the current political climate — pro bono legal services by the private bar will continue to be a key component of the access to justice equation.

So, the question becomes how to engage more effectively the private bar in pro bono to further bridge the justice gap. Most jurisdictions, with the exception of Illinois, have adopted into their rules of professional conduct some version or some form of Rule 6.1 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct. The current version of Model Rule 6.1, which was adopted by the ABA House of Delegates in 2002, provides that “[e]very lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.” The rule articulates the aspirational nature of this responsibility, but also quantifies the goal — encouraging lawyers to contribute at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services annually.

Though a vital step, adoption of an aspirational rule alone has been and will continue to be insufficient to increase dramatically the engagement in pro bono by the private bar. According to a recent study conducted by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service (the Supporting Justice Survey), attorneys provided in 2016 an average of 36.9 hours of pro bono legal services, well below the aspirational goal of at least 50 hours annually as set forth in Model Rule 6.1. In fact, according to the survey, only 20 percent of the responding attorneys provided 50 hours or more of pro bono service..."

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