Vol. 79, No. 7, July
Probing Pro Bono:
Studies Assess Lawyers' Contributions, Citizens' Needs
Two State Bar studies gather data to answer crucial questions: What
are lawyers already contributing in pro bono services? What are the
legal needs of Wisconsin's low-income residents, and how can society
best meet those needs?
by Dianne Molvig
isconsin attorneys have witnessed an intense focus in the past couple
of years on a key question: What is their responsibility in providing
legal services to people who can't afford to pay for them?
Swirling around that question are other issues, such as voluntary
versus mandatory pro bono; what counts as pro bono; and the already
enacted, but still controversial, compulsory Wisconsin Supreme Court
assessment to fund legal services for poor people through WisTAF, which
took effect in July 2005.
Still, the quandary lingers as to how to best meet the legal needs of
Wisconsin's poor residents. To aid in the search for solutions, the
State Bar of Wisconsin has undertaken two studies to gather vital
First, the State Bar's Pro Bono Survey aimed to learn more about what
Wisconsin lawyers already are contributing in pro bono legal services.
That survey is now complete.
Second, State Bar President Mike Guerin appointed nine Bar members to
a special committee, the Access to Justice Study Committee. The
committee's charge is to assess the extent of legal services needs among
Wisconsin's low-income residents and ways to fund those services.
Moreover, the study is looking at the cost to society of failing to meet
those legal needs. The study is now under way, with a report to the Bar
due later this year.
Pro Bono Baseline
The essence of the findings of the 2005 Pro Bono Survey can be found
in one sentence written by Jeff Brown, State Bar pro bono coordinator,
in a letter attached to the survey report.
Brown writes: "[L]awyers have gone further than any other profession
or vocation that I'm aware of when it comes to regularly giving away
what they could and would otherwise charge full fare to provide."
Survey results seem to support Brown's statement. The more than 2,000
Bar members responding to the October 2005 survey reported that in the
preceding 12 months, they provided 110,736 hours of free legal services.
That translates into services valued at about $18.3 million, based on
the median billing rate of $165 per hour, as reported in the Bar's 2005
Economics of Law Practice Survey. Of that amount, nearly $12 million in
services went to individuals on limited incomes and to community
organizations that serve poor people.
In addition, in that same 12 months respondents contributed 80,241
hours of reduced-fee legal services to Wisconsin's poor residents and
organizations that serve them. Using a reduced fee of half the $165
median hourly rate, the value of these services totaled more than $6.6
As the State Bar's pro bono coordinator, Brown's job is to support
and enhance pro bono efforts among the state's lawyers, in accordance
with the Board of Governors' decision to foster more pro bono
involvement among attorneys as a way of improving public access to the
"The Bar has set that goal," Brown says. "To measure how successfully
we're meeting that goal, we need some kind of baseline. That's why we
did this survey - to find out what lawyers are doing now."
The survey asked 18 questions about three types of pro bono
- direct services to clients;
- activities to improve the justice system or the legal profession;
- voluntary financial contributions to support legal services to
people of limited means.
Direct services to clients include both free and reduced-fee
services. Brown notes that the latter often get overlooked when people,
lawyers included, think about pro bono. "The rules that have been
drafted on pro bono services," he says, "have always included
reduced-fee work. That's probably the least known piece" of what
qualifies as pro bono.
That brings up another purpose of the survey. "There's also an
educational part to this - to show that there are different ways to do
pro bono," Brown says.
Below are key survey findings:
- The median pro bono hours per respondent was 70 hours, including all
types of pro bono service, over the previous 12 months. (The median is
the middle value - that is, half the responses were above this number,
half were below.) The mean, or average, was 137 hours. The wide
difference between the median and the mean indicates that a few
unusually high numbers skewed the mean. Thus, the median proves to be a
more useful figure in this instance.
- Free legal services to individuals of limited means totaled 52,706
hours for the 12-month period. The value of those hours (using the
$165-per-hour rate) was $8.7 million.
- Free legal services to organizations that address the needs of
persons of limited means totaled 19,619 hours. Value: $3.2 million.
- Free legal services to charitable, civic, religious, educational, or
other nonprofit organizations totaled 38,411 hours. Value: $6.3
- Reduced-fee legal services to individuals totaled 67,491 hours.
Value: $5.6 million.
- Reduced-fee legal services to organizations that address the needs
of persons of limited means totaled 12,930 hours. Value: $1.1
- Wisconsin lawyers in private practice contributed 66,419 hours of
free legal services, worth just under $11 million, to people on low
incomes and to organizations serving poor people. They gave another
63,502 hours of reduced-fee services, worth about $5.2 million. By
comparison, federal Legal Services Corporation funding in Wisconsin last
year was about $4 million.
- Respondents reported a total of 28,669 hours devoted to activities
to improve the law, the legal system, or the legal profession. The
median among all respondents was 15 hours; among judicial members, it
was 40 hours.
- 29 percent of respondents said they had made voluntary financial
contributions (beyond the required $50 WisTAF assessment) to provide
financial support to legal services for people of limited means.
Grants Boost Pro Bono Efforts
Do you have an idea for a project that could address an unmet legal
need in your community? The State Bar's Legal Assistance Committee can
help you get started. The committee issues grants of up to $5,000 as
seed money for projects that aim to help Wisconsin's underserved
"It's overwhelming when you assess the legal needs throughout the
state and then try to develop dozens of programs to address those needs
through a centralized process," says committee past-chair Elizabeth
Rich, a Plymouth attorney. "We think what works better is to say, `You
come to us. You have identified a need for legal services in your
community, and you've designed a project. Now come to us and let us help
you fund it.'"
Those selected in May to receive Pro Bono Initiative grants for the
2005-2006 fiscal year include:
- Brown County Bar Association - $4,000 to help the
county's growing immigrant population;
- Dane County Domestic Violence Project - $4,500 for
a cooperative effort of several domestic violence agencies to help
victims obtain temporary restraining orders;
- La Crosse County Bar Association - $3,000 to
provide legal information, referrals, and brief legal advice to county
- Milwaukee Bar Bankruptcy Section - $2,000 to help
fund a help desk to be staffed by volunteer attorneys at the Eastern
District of Wisconsin Bankruptcy Court;
- Legal Services for Immigrants - $5,000 to Catholic
Charities in Milwaukee to train lawyer volunteers to assist immigrants
in southeast Wisconsin who are victims of domestic violence;
- Rock County
Restraining Order project - $3,500 to advise and assist
domestic violence victims in the Rock County area.
- American Immigration Law Association, Wisconsin
Chapter - $5,000 to help expand legal services statewide to
immigrants who are victims of domestic violence.
Pro Bono Initiative grant proposals for the 2006-2007 fiscal year
will be due Oct. 2, 2006. "We want to encourage new projects," Rich
says, "because our goal is to increase the number of attorneys
participating in pro bono."
The State Bar Pro Bono Initiative is a statewide-coordinated program
to support, recognize, and increase lawyers' volunteer legal efforts. In
collaboration with the judiciary, legal services providers, and local
bar organizations, the initiative works to improve public access to the
legal system by promoting solutions that eliminate barriers to effective
access to the civil justice system. For more information about the Legal
Assistance Committee or to download a Pro Bono Initiative grant
application and guidelines, visit www.wisbar.org/committee/leg.
For more information about any State Bar pro bono program and
services for pro bono volunteers, contact State Bar pro bono coordinator
Brown, (608) 250-6177, or (800) 444-9404, ext. 6177.
In addition, the survey asked respondents to choose incentives that
would encourage them to increase their pro bono work. Some of the top
choices included: help with out-of-pocket costs, free malpractice
insurance, CLE credit, free or discounted manuals and forms, free or
discounted training, the availability of mentors and cocounsel, and the
opportunity to work on a discrete legal task.
The opportunity to work on a discrete legal task refers to a sort of
unbundling of pro bono. In other words, attorneys would give a limited
amount of help in a case, such as reviewing a settlement agreement or
assisting in filing for a divorce, but let the client take it from
Brown says the State Bar is trying to develop more projects involving
discrete legal tasks. He notes that the Dane County Bar Association, for
instance, has discussed a project that would offer seminars for
consumers on specific legal issues, combined with a set amount of time
to consult with a lawyer for no fee.
The State Bar Pro Bono Initiative already offers many of the types of
assistance respondents favored, including free malpractice insurance,
help with out-of-pocket costs, and free and discounted training and
manuals and forms.
Next year, a new Wisconsin Supreme Court rule governing lawyers'
professional conduct on pro bono, following the American Bar
Association's model, will go into effect. It will include an
aspirational goal (not mandatory) of 50 hours of pro bono work per
Brown points out that some lawyers may be uneasy with that goal as
set by the court. Still, he believes the Pro Bono Survey's findings
should reassure many lawyers in a couple of ways. "First, that number
probably is no more than what you're already doing," he says. "And
secondly, some of the things you're already doing count as pro
Sizing Up Legal Needs
The Bar's Access to Justice Study Committee is assessing the extent
of legal needs among Wisconsin's low-income residents. Committee chair
Richard Sankovitz, a Milwaukee County circuit court judge, recognizes
that some observers may question the need for such a study. Isn't it
obvious that Wisconsin has low-income people who have legal needs and
can't afford legal help?
Sankovitz has two responses. First, he notes that the Access to
Justice Study aims to take an in-depth look at legal needs. The study
goes beyond assessing the size of the problem. It seeks to create a
detailed picture of it, by finding answers to multiple questions: Who
needs services? Where are these people? What sorts of legal services do
they need most? How do legal needs vary among racial/ethnic groups and
from one part of the state to another?
"The second answer to the `isn't it obvious' question," Sankovitz
contends, "is if it's so obvious, why aren't we doing anything? What is
as obvious as poverty in Wisconsin is the lack of a response."
Sankovitz describes the Access to Justice Study as having a
"three-pronged approach." The first part is a telephone survey, which
ended in May 2006, of 1,200 Wisconsin residents with household incomes
of less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level in three sample
geographic groups: the city of Milwaukee, other urban areas, and rural
areas. (The 2006 federal poverty level was a household income of $20,000
for a family of four.)
The committee targeted this income level for two reasons, Sanko-vitz
explains. First, the federal poverty guidelines are drastically out of
touch with today's economic realities. Someone working full time at a
minimum-wage job earns below the current poverty line and certainly
can't afford a lawyer. But even people who earn well above the current
poverty line often can't afford to hire an attorney.
"Our goal generally was to get to people who have incomes of $40,000
and below for a family of four," Sankovitz says.
The second component of the study entails collecting anecdotes of
individuals' experiences in seeking legal help - and what happened when
they didn't get that help. While not as scientific, the committee
expects this part of the study to be "more telling," Sankovitz says.
"We'll see whether in fact these people ended up having to rely on some
other form of social assistance, which cost [the state] more than if
we'd provided a lawyer" at the outset.
A third study component will examine the costs and the current
funding of legal services for low-income people. Could current
approaches be improved? "We are exploring whether there are better ways
to look at this," Sankovitz says. "For example, could we establish a
Wisconsin legal poverty line" to broaden eligibility for services.
The committee will complete its study by the end of 2006. But
ultimately, the study will trigger a longer, more far-reaching process,
Sankovitz predicts. In fact, similar studies in other states, such as
Illinois and Washington, led to full-scale efforts to devise solutions,
involving state supreme courts, legislators, and governors.
The committee hopes its study will stir a similar call to action in
Wisconsin. Meeting the legal needs of the state's low-income residents
is not solely the Bar's responsibility, Sankovitz emphasizes. "It's a
problem that belongs to our state as a community," he says, "and the
community needs to solve it."