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Pro Bono: A Professional and Ethical Obligation

Monday, January 05, 2004

  • By: William Dean
  • Organization: Volunteers of Legal Service

This article appeared in "Pro Bono Digest", New York Law Journal, January 2, 2004

As lawyers, we are very privileged members of society. We are well-educated, articulate and know how to get things done in an increasingly complex world.

Most important of all, we have been granted a monopoly in terms of exclusive access to the courts to represent clients, and to practice law. With this grant of authority comes a commensurate responsibility. We have a professional obligation to perform pro bono work on behalf of poor people who otherwise will have no access to the courts, or to other legal services. Robert A. Katzmann, editor of The Law Firm and the Public Good (The Brookings Institution/The Governance Institute, Washington, D.C., 1995), who serves as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, expresses the point cogently. After noting that the state grants lawyers a monopoly on legal services and that unauthorized practice is forbidden, he writes:

[T}he very reason the state conferred such a monopoly was so that justice could best be served - a notion that surely means that even those unable to pay...can expect legal representation. A lawyer's duty to serve those unable to pay is thus not an act of charity or benevolence, but rather one of professional responsibility, reinforced by the terms under which the state has granted to the profession effective control of the legal system.

Lawyers have a professional obligation to do pro bono work and law firms have an obligation to encourage their lawyers to do such work. This duty is reflected in our Code of Professional Responsibility: "A lawyer has an obligation to render public interest and pro bono legal service." (Ethical Consideration 2-25.) It is reflected in the Administrative Board of the Courts resolution providing, in part: "Lawyers are strongly encouraged to provide pro bono legal services to benefit poor persons." (A copy of this resolution accompanies the biennial New York State attorney registration form sent to every lawyer in the state.)

And we have an ethical obligation to do pro bono work. The ethical obligation is central to the teachings of all religions and secular philosophies. To cite two passages from the Bible: "Justice, justice shall ye pursue all the days of your life." (Deuteronomy). "He who has compassion on the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his good deeds." (Proverbs). And from the Koran, "Indeed! Allah commands justice, kindness...."

It is found in the values imparted to us by our parents; by our finest teachers; by the people we admire most in life; in the great works of literature.

It is found in the inscriptions on our court buildings: "Equal Justice Under Law." (United States Supreme Court.) "The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government." (Supreme Court, New York County). "Justice is denied no one....Equal and exact justice to all men of whatever state or persuasion." (Criminal Court, New York County).

It is demanded by the needs of society. In our country, 33 million Americans live below the federal poverty line. (An annual income of $9,359 for an individual and $18,244 for a family of four.) Of this number, 13.4 million Americans have incomes of less than half the official poverty level. In our city, one in five city residents live below the federal poverty line, meaning that almost 1.7 million New Yorkers live in poverty. Many of these New Yorkers have compelling civil legal needs.

Through pro bono, lawyers have the opportunity to help others and to enrich our own lives. U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Frank M. Coffin, in his essay in The Law Firm and the Public Good, highlights the benefits from performing such work:

[P]ro bono service emerges as a beacon or opportunity; opportunity to work one-on-one with human clients, to gather new experiences of interest to generate new pride in legal work...[and for younger lawyers] the early assumption of greater responsibilities, thus stimulating confidence, the ability to organize time, and maturity.

There are wonderful resources available for lawyers interested in doing pro bono work. The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, Volunteers of Legal Service and Pro Bono Net publish Pro Bono Opportunities: A Guide for Lawyers in New York City. The guide is available on the websites of the city bar association ( and Pro Bono Net (

A number of legal services and public interest organizations post available pro bono opportunities on Pro Bono Net. These case listings can be accessed through To receive the monthly e-mail version of the "New York City Pro Bono and Legal Services Training Calendar," follow the instructions on the calendar page of the Pro Bono Net website.

Lawyers wishing to undertake pro bono work elsewhere in the state can consult Pro Bono Opportunities: A Guide for Lawyers Outside New York City, a publication of the Department of Pro Bono Affairs of the New York State Bar Association. This publication is available on the state bar association's website,

Early in 2004, lawyers in New York State will have available to them a searchable database of pro bono opportunities online at the websites of the state and city bar associations and Pro Bono Net.

May all lawyers heed the words of Hippocrates, writing of the obligations of another of the great professions: "Sometimes give your services for nothing, calling to mind a previous benefaction or present satisfaction. And if there be an opportunity of serving one who is a stranger in financial straits, give full assistance to all such....For where there is love of man, there is also love of the art."

Pro Bono Developments in South America

The Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice Initiatives of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, as one of its programs, has been collaborating with lawyers, bar associations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in South America to support local efforts to promote and institutionalize pro bono legal services. The Vance Center co-sponsored conferences on this subject in Argentina (2001), Chile (2002), and most recently, this past month, in São Paulo, Brazil. (This writer participated at all three conferences.)

S. Todd Crider, a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, who chairs the Association's Committee on the Vance Center, says that in South America, until recently, "Pro bono was not part of the legal lexicon. Now most significant-sized firms in these three countries have developed a pro bono policy, or are in the process of doing so." The Vance Center, working with colleagues in Argentina, Chile and Brazil, has contributed to this development.
Joan Vermeulen, the executive director of the Vance Center, describe the center's ambitious 2004 agenda in Latin America.

Chile. The center has created partnerships between law firms in New York City and Santiago. Simpson Thacher; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and Torys are each matched with a law firm in Santiago. By teleconferences, the firms discuss pro bono issues, such as steps in establishing a law firm pro bono program; weighing the creation of a pro bono committee versus the appointment of a pro bono coordinator, and the roles of associates and partners in pro bono. In 2004, Sullivan & Cromwell and Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, along with three other New York firms, will be matched with five additional firms in Chile. The Vance Center works with Fundación Pro Bono in Santiago on this project.

The Vance Center also is developing a domestic violence pro bono project with the Chilean bar association. The government agency in Chile which assists persons who have been subjected to domestic violence, and NGOs working in this area, are project participants.

Argentina. A video conference among NGOs from Argentina and the United States to discuss pro bono issues is being organized by the center, and papers will be prepared for lawyers in Argentina on pro bono models in use in the United States.

Lawyers in both Argentina and Chile have expressed interest in projects to provide pro bono legal services to microentrepreneurs. A video conference on this subject will be organized involving lawyers from Argentina, Chile and the United States.

Regional Projects

(1) A web-based Amicus Network will be created where lawyers in Latin America will post information on cases where they are seeking an amicus brief on legal matters of major importance. "The website," says Ms. Vermeulen, "will be a valuable tool for cooperation among lawyers working in both North and South America."

(2) The center plans to undertake a research project relating to modernizing codes of ethics in Argentine, Brazil, Chile and Mexico. Lawyers in each of these countries will undertake the research, to be followed by a working conference with the goal of drafting a model ethics code.

(3) A two-day conference in New York, "A Profession for Democracy," will take place in the fall of 2004, bringing together Latin American leaders of bar associations, law firms, pro bono programs, public interest groups and law school educators. "Pro bono is part of the larger transformation of the legal profession in Latin America," says Ms. Vermeulen. "The process that is leading to its institutionalization would not have happened without parallel developments in legal education and public interest law."

In his closing remarks at the 2002 conference in Chile, Mr. Crider, speaking of the pro bono initiative being undertaken in the region, said, "It offers the advantage of reintegrating a privileged profession in the reality of one's society....As lawyers we have the obligation to tear the veil of ignorance that separates us from hidden injustices and then respond to what we see."

These words apply with equal force to the privileged profession of law in our own city.

William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.

Pro Bono and legal aid attorney resources - Pro Bono Net

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