Vol. 85, No. 6, June 2012
Rather than review my year as State Bar president in this last column, I challenge Wisconsin lawyers to do good and be well, through pro bono service. Our profession's special status comes with obligations. Supreme Court Rule 6.1 makes our duty clear: "Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay." No one else is allowed to do what we do; public service is one way we give back. Still, the Wisconsin Civil Legal Needs Study found that only 27 percent of the low-income households surveyed had received help from a lawyer for at least one of the legal problems they faced. This void is not entirely lawyers' fault, but it is one lawyers should do more to fill, in part because we can do so in ways that no one else can. Every lawyer should step up to help low-income clients, on a limited-legal-service basis if you are not able to provide full representation.
While the demand for legal help is growing, state funding for civil legal services has been eliminated and federal LSC funding has been reduced. Through the Wisconsin Supreme Court's $50 public-interest legal-services assessment, lawyers are one of the only stable funding sources for legal services.
It is unfair and unreasonable to promise equal justice when people are unable to afford a lawyer to help with their problems in a system they do not understand. If lawyers do not fulfill the unmet legal needs in our justice system, they risk losing their exclusive role to represent people in that system.
Apart from the professional and moral reasons for service, pro bono work helps to make us better lawyers. It offers professional development at any career stage, but the rewards are especially great for new lawyers. Whether you are reinforcing existing skills or developing new expertise, pro bono work provides the opportunity for you to grow as a lawyer. The State Bar's Modest Means Panel is a great way to get started. Private bar involvement in the State Public Defender's Office and pro bono panels at legal service organizations, such as Catholic Charities' Legal Services to Immigrants Program, provide unique and satisfying advocacy experiences.
Networking is vital for new lawyers to develop their reputations and practices. Pro bono service introduces you to other lawyers and judges. These lawyers can become referral sources. Judges who see your pro bono work in their courts may be more likely to appoint you on cases for which payment is possible.
The State Bar has resources to help support members interested in pro bono work, including:
- A searchable opportunities directory at www.wisbar.org/probono.
- Professional malpractice coverage for members' pro bono work in State Bar-sponsored projects. Many legal aid organizations offer similar coverage to their volunteers.
- Pro Bono Initiative grants to help start or expand projects.
- Reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses members incur handling pro bono cases.
- A full-time pro bono coordinator, Jeff Brown, who provides members, law firms, and local bar associations with nationally recognized support services.
My parting wish for all lawyers: a prosperous, satisfying, and healthy career. Pro bono service makes the difference for many successful lawyers.