Local Lawyers Step Up For National Pro Bono Week

By Marco Poggio | October 27, 2023, 3:09 PM EDT ·

cpurthouse exterior

Held inside a courthouse in Golden, Colorado, on Oct. 23, Jefferson County Law Day featured volunteers offering "ask-a-lawyer" consultations and outreach from Colorado's Child Support Services and the local sheriff's office. (Anthony Pereira, Metro Volunteer Lawyers, Denver Bar Association)

Inside the modern-looking public library of a little Louisiana town on the Mississippi River, people browse magazines while waiting in line to meet with Loyd Bourgeois.

In an empty study room set up for the occasion, Bourgeois, a local personal injury and disability lawyer, talks one-on-one about a variety of topics: landlord-tenant disputes, property succession issues, school-related problems, expungement and minor criminal matters, just to name a few.

Meanwhile, at a community center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, a legal nonprofit called 603 Legal Aid offers a clinic to help local residents take advantage of a state law that permits people to expunge their criminal records after they serve their sentences.

On the opposite side of the country, a statewide volunteer lawyer program in Idaho offers free legal consultations in local library branches for civil matters affecting low-income people and seniors.

And inside the Jefferson County Courthouse in Golden, Colorado, on the outskirts of Denver, pro bono attorneys recruited by the court system give presentations on topics like power of attorney and protection orders, and assist walk-in clients on matters such as traffic tickets, divorce cases, personal injury claims and more.

people at tables during clinic

A free legal aid clinic in downtown Boise on Oct. 23. The event was geared toward seniors and low-income people. (Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program)

These are only some examples of hundreds of activities that are part of the National Celebration of Pro Bono, a nationwide initiative started by the American Bar Association in 2009 to raise awareness about the need for pro bono legal assistance.

Throughout this year's event, held from Oct. 22 to 28 and known informally as Pro Bono Week, attorneys of all kinds and specialties, from solo practitioners to BigLaw partners, have contributed their time and skills to assist people with legal matters. And almost always, it's on behalf of people who would otherwise be unable to afford a lawyer.

Pro Bono Week initiatives run the gamut from small legal clinics, to CLEs, to posh award ceremonies, but the goal is the same: Promote pro bono work and celebrate those who do it.

"Without legal representation, individuals have no voice. They are denied the promise of justice for all, which is a crucial element of democracy," ABA President Mary Smith said in a video on the event's homepage.

Every year, the ABA president decides a theme for the week. For this year, Smith, the first Native American woman to serve in the role, picked "voices of democracy."

woman offering legal assistance

A volunteer attorney meets with a client during a "lawyer in the library" event held Oct. 23 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. (Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program)

Henry Su, the chair of the ABA's standing committee on pro bono and public service, said understanding the importance of Pro Bono Week requires digging into a long-running debate within the legal profession on a fundamental question: Should lawyers be compelled to provide pro bono legal services?

Rule 6.1 of the ABA's Rules of Professional Conduct says that attorneys have a professional responsibility to provide legal assistance to people who cannot afford it, and that every lawyer "should aspire" to perform at least 50 hours of pro bono work each year. The somehow flexible wording of Rule 6.1 contrasts significantly with other rules, however, which spell out squarely what attorneys can and cannot do.

The conundrum for the ABA, and specifically the committee Su chairs, is how to find ways to encourage lawyers to do pro bono work when it isn't technically mandatory.

"Because the rule is not mandatory, we have to figure out what are different ways to motivate people," he said. "We're not twisting their arms, but we're giving them fewer and fewer excuses not to do it."

Su said the attorney group has leaned on psychology for solutions, in particular a theory of motivation called self-determination theory. Under the theory, motivation comes from three factors: autonomy, competence, and the feeling of being part of something bigger.

Pro Bono Week strikes at the core of the latter, Su said.

"It's that factor, or that element of the self-determination theory, that I think is what makes this National Celebration of Pro Bono so powerful," he said. "It really highlights what the whole profession as a whole in this country is doing. And if you're not already part of it, hopefully it will encourage you to be part of it."

The first Pro Bono Week rolled out in 2009 at a time when the ABA was trying to persuade attorneys to provide no-cost services to confront a massive legal aid demand caused by the Great Recession.

The ABA said the number of Pro Bono Week events grew from about 600 in 2009 to over 1,600 in 2019. Overall, since the initiative's inception, a total of about 13,000 events have popped up across the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and even Canada.

According to the ABA's most recent study on pro bono participation, which surveyed about 47,000 lawyers in 24 states in 2016 and was published two years later, over 80% of attorneys reported having done pro bono work at some point in their lives. More than half of surveyed attorneys said they performed pro bono work in 2016.

With Pro Bono Week, Su said, the ABA wants to focus on the one in every five lawyers who have never done pro bono in their careers.

"Can any event like the National Celebration of Pro Bono encourage some of them to join in?" he said. "That's the idea."

Pro Bono Week is also an occasion for large firms and corporate legal departments to showcase their volunteer work, which represents the lion's share of pro bono work done annually nationwide, and which often has the deepest impact. Amazon, for instance, said its in-house attorneys clocked more than 10,000 pro bono hours last year, according to a report the company released on Monday. Microsoft said through a spokesperson that during its last full fiscal year, its lawyers contributed over 6,500 hours on projects assisting immigrants, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA recipients, Afghan asylum seekers and journalists, as well as incarcerated people seeking early release from prison.

Among BigLaw firms, Morrison Foerster LLP totaled more than 62,000 pro bono hours in 2022, with a participation of over 91% of attorneys and an average of 78 volunteer hours per lawyer. And New Jersey-headquartered Lowenstein Sandler LLP, a Mid-Law firm, recorded a pro bono participation of about 70% of its attorneys, with an average individual contribution of 65 hours, and a firmwide total surpassing 25,000 hours.

Overall, data shows pro bono work becoming increasingly popular across the legal industry. According to a Law360 Pulse survey last year, at least 17 firms boasted a pro bono attorney participation rate of 90% or higher in 2021. And law firms and corporate in-house departments are finding ways to partner up to address legal needs.

But the spirit of Pro Bono Week is perhaps best represented by local lawyers groups and individual attorneys pitching in without the support of large firms or corporations.

On Monday, from 1 to 3 p.m., Bourgeois, who runs an eponymous two-lawyer firm, took part in an "ask-a-lawyer" event organized by the Louisiana Bar Association at the St. Charles Parish West Regional Library in Luling, Louisiana, a short drive west from New Orleans. The day after, he manned a similar event at a library in nearby Jefferson Parish.

smiling man at desk with papers

Attorney Loyd Bourgeois during an "ask-a-lawyer" event organized by the Louisiana Bar Association at the St. Charles Parish West Regional Library, in Luling, Louisiana, on Oct. 23. (Loyd Bourgeois)

Bourgeois said the ask-a-lawyer events give low-income people a unique opportunity to consult with an attorney about personal matters in privacy and for free.

"It's really just like if you were meeting with an attorney in the office," he said. "A lot of times they bring in a stack of papers, you know, like, 'Hey, I need you to look at this, go through this with me, help me understand it.'"

Some of the documents make sense, some don't, Bourgeois said, but he does his best to give the person in front of him the attention and respect he would give any paying client.

"People are very appreciative of just getting to hear from an actual attorney, because a lot of times they've heard from friends, family, internet lawyers, a variety of different advice or recommendations that may or may not be true," Bourgeois said.

For the event in Lebanon, New Hampshire, 603 Legal Aid partnered with a community center that provides services to individuals who are struggling with substance abuse and homelessness.

There, on Wednesday afternoon, attorneys from the Grafton County area, which covers the rural and mountainous central part of the state, volunteered to help qualifying low-income people navigate the intricacies of New Hampshire's expungement system, which in the state is called annulment.

Participants are able to bring in criminal and motor vehicle records for attorneys to review in detail and get advice on what to do next. Those who are eligible for annulment are connected with attorneys to help file the necessary paperwork.

"It's very daunting. The statute is pretty difficult to sort of wade through and can be confusing. So having somebody there to guide you and help you is really great," Emma Sisti, 603 Legal Aid's deputy director and pro bono manager, told Law360.

The clinic provides another advantage: It allows people to avoid the otherwise mandatory $125 fee for each annulled charge.

woman leading meeting in conference room

Emma Sisti of 603 Legal Aid briefs clients of an expungement clinic hosted in a community center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, on Oct. 25. (603 Legal Aid)

Many of the events highlighted during Pro Bono Week go on year-round.

The Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program, for example, offers monthly pro bono clinics for low-income people, including one for senior citizens with civil legal issues hosted in a community center in downtown Boise, and several "Lawyer in the Library" programs across the Snake River Valley and in Coeur d'Alene, in the northern part of the state.

"We have found that having clinics at the libraries are really accessible for people," Jenni Bolen Jordan, project manager at the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program, told Law360.

In Colorado, meanwhile, attorneys with Metro Volunteer Lawyers, the pro bono arm of the Denver Bar Association, regularly host family law and power of attorney clinics, and a walk-in clinic inside the Denver Indian Center, an urban cultural gathering center for the American Indian and Alaska Native community. The group also operates a pro bono mediation program and recruits attorneys for referral cases that it cannot handle on its own.

Pro Bono Week brings a major boost in visibility and networking to those initiatives, said Toni-Anne Nunez, the director of pro bono programming at both the Colorado and Denver bar associations. Large law firms invite members of the local bar associations to their headquarters to give presentations aimed at both inspiring them to volunteer and connecting them with opportunities to do so, Nunez said.

"Our job is to find volunteers," Nunez said. "Once people do it a couple times, they tend to get addicted. They enjoy it. As attorneys, they get positive feedback. They feel like they're making a difference in their community — which they are."

--Editing by Robert Rudinger.

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