Pro Bono Service: Our Professional Lifeline

pro bonoThis week is Pro Bono Week and one of the many topics under discussion is how technology is transforming professionalism and pro bono service.

Many decry the technology-related changes to the practice of law as a terrible shift toward a “business model” and away from a professional model of practice. Yes, if being “business-like” means that lawyers no longer acknowledge or fulfill their ethical and professional obligations, including their obligation of service to the administration of justice and to the public, professionalism suffers.

If, however, being more “business-like” means lawyers are becoming more responsive to clients, more willing to render services with greater efficiency and competency, then professionalism is enhanced.

Despite the changes in efficiency or unbundling or commoditizing some legal services, our ethical rules and professional obligations apply. These are the defining characteristics of law as a profession.

Aspiring to Professionalism

Our Rules of Professional Conduct state the floor of acceptable conduct, violation of which will subject lawyers to discipline. Not every lawyer who escapes discipline and complies with the ethical rules, however, exemplifies professionalism. Ethical rules delineate the way lawyers must behave; professionalism concepts animate the way lawyers should behave.

The professionalism concepts are found in the Preamble to the Rules. The Preamble makes clear that lawyers have obligations not only to their clients, but also to the legal system and to the public. Preamble [1], [6]. Three concurrent sets of responsibilities lawyers must fulfill are discussed: the lawyer as a “representative of client,” as “an officer of the legal system” and as “a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”

So what is this public citizen duty? Comment 6 to the Preamble states “as a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession. Comment 6 also includes a special mention that lawyers should use their training, skills and experience to provide service in the public interest for which compensation may not be available—pro bono publico.

Pro Bono Service to the Public

Expanding access to legal services is crucially important. Research shows that only anywhere from 15-25% of the civil legal needs of low or modest income people are being met. Increasingly, litigants are representing themselves in court, leaving them overwhelmed and frustrated by the system and slowing down court operations. This gap is expected to widen in the decades ahead as government legal help for those in need continues to diminish, with a steady decline in funding for Legal Aid, public defenders, and state and federal court resources.

In the past several years, courts of most states have been forced to operate with at least 10 percent less funding than they had back in 2007, resulting in frozen or reduced salaries for judges and staff, furloughs, or a cutting back of hours of operation. Federal public defender offices across the country have experienced serious staff reductions despite a workload that represents about 60 % of the criminal defendants in the federal court system.

So public service grows in importance. This obligation is not shared by those who are not lawyers and distinguishes our profession from a mere business.

Service in the public interest may include pro bono representation of people who cannot afford to pay for legal services and working for legal reform. Lawyers are called upon, but in most jurisdictions, including Illinois, are not required to volunteer their training, skills and experience to provide service in the public interest.

Illinois Lawyers: Answering the Call to Serve

Despite this, Illinois lawyers have given much of their time and finances to serving the public good. Illinois lawyers must report pro bono service on our annual Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission registration forms. The 2014 ARDC annual report indicates that 30,213 attorneys (about one third of the registered Illinois attorneys) provided over two million hours of pro bono service. 17,179 attorneys reported monetary contributions of $14,270,521.

The service ethic can be planted in future lawyers during their law school years. Opportunities to provide pro bono service, while gaining valuable practical experience, exist at many law schools. Southern Illinois University School of Law has taken this a step further. Beginning with the class that matriculated in the fall of 2014, students must complete 35 hours of pro bono service under the supervision of a practicing attorney in order to graduate. SIU remains the only Illinois law school to have this requirement. SIU Dean Cynthia Fountaine, also a Commissioner of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, reports that the program is going well.

The Personal and Public Benefits of Service

Not only is service a lawyer’s professional duty, it is also self-serving in that a thoroughly compromised justice system (that does not work for most citizens) is not an environment conducive to a fulfilling career, much less a just society.

Further, research shows that individuals who volunteer reap great physiological and emotional rewards. What leads to satisfaction in life is to know that our work has great meaning. We shouldn’t necessarily expect to be entertained by what we do to earn a livelihood, but, rather, we should derive a deep sense of purpose about our work. To quote Leo Rosten:

The purpose of life is not to be happy – but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you have lived at all.

We are fortunate that the professionalism required by our chosen career carries with it such strong intrinsic personal benefit. Service is our lifeline.








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