Nov. 16, 2016 – Soon, and thanks to a long-awaited rule change, Wisconsin lawyers can claim up to six CLE credits for providing pro bono legal services.
Under Chapter 31 of the Supreme Court Rules, lawyers in active status with the State Bar of Wisconsin are required to obtain and report at least 30 hours of continuing legal education credits, including three hours of ethics credits, in each two-year reporting period. On July 21, 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court granted the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Petition 15-05.
As a result, starting Jan. 1, 2017, Wisconsin lawyers can claim one hour of CLE credit for every five hours of pro bono work in qualified pro bono programs, up to a maximum of six credits per reporting period. A lawyer who provides at least 30 hours of qualifying pro bono legal services in a reporting period can claim up to six hours of CLE credit.
What Kind of Pro Bono Work Qualifies?
Jeff Brown, Harvard 1989, is manager of the State Bar Pro Bono Program, liaison to the Legal Assistance Committee, and staff for the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6177.
Not every type of pro bono work under Rule 6.1 qualifies for CLE credit. Under Rule 31.01(11) pro bono legal services is defined as “direct legal services provided without fee or expectation of fee to persons of limited means through a qualified pro bono program or pursuant to an appointment by a state or federal court.”
What Is a Qualified Pro Bono Program?
Chapter 31.01(12) outlines three types of pro bono programs that are explicitly prequalified under the rule. A program is prequalified if it is: (1) operated by a Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation (WisTAF) grantee; (2) operated by a Wisconsin law school; or (3) operated by a Wisconsin bar association as of July 21, 2016. A program approved by the Board of Bar Examiners can also become a qualified pro bono program.
What Programs Qualify Under the WisTAF Grantee Provision?
The list of WisTAF grantees may change from year to year and is available on WisTAF’s website. The following organizations currently receive WisTAF funding:
ABC (Advocacy and Benefits Counseling) for Health, Inc., a nonprofit public interest law firm serving families on legal issues related to health care access and financing;
AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin provides help to individuals and families living with HIV/AIDS, so they can find the legal help they need to live with dignity;
Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Inc., a nonprofit charitable organization serving more than 13,000 families annually in the areas of adult, family and children, and social ministries;
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse, Inc. provides services for immigration, emergency support, adoption, financial counseling, domestic abuse, children with disabilities, and ministries, including the HIV/AIDS Ministry Project;
Center Against Sexual & Domestic Abuse, Inc. (CASDA) provides services to individuals hurt by domestic, sexual, or child abuse;
Centro Legal por Derechos Humanos, a nonprofit corporation providing legal representation to the poor and those with limited resources for a reasonable and accessible price in the Milwaukee area;
Community Justice, Inc., a nonprofit corporation that provides legal services to Madison-area low-income families and individuals on a sliding-fee scale based on federal poverty guidelines;
Disability Rights Wisconsin defends the rights of people residing in Wisconsin’s public and private institutions, and represents individuals under the Americans with Disabilities act through information and referral, direct legal representation, and in limited situations, class action litigation;
Kids Matter Inc. provides legal services and other advocacy for children in foster and kinship care in the greater Milwaukee area;
Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc. serves low-income clients in the areas of family law and domestic violence, housing, public benefits, special education, and economic development;
Legal Aid Society of Door County, a volunteer organization that operates primarily as a screening and referral source to coordinate legal services through local pro bono attorneys;
Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee provides family law, public benefits, landlord-tenant, consumer, municipal ordinance defense, and civil rights law to low-income people in Milwaukee;
Portage County Legal Aid Society is a volunteer attorney legal service that addresses the need for pro bono civil legal services for indigent persons in Portage County; and
Wisconsin Judicare, Inc. provides civil legal services to nearly 3,000 low-income northern Wisconsin residents each year with the help of 400 private practice attorneys and eight staff attorneys.
Registered In-house Counsel Can Now Provide Pro Bono Legal Services
Wisconsin joins a number of other states in encouraging registered in-house counsel to add their skills to the effort to expand equal access to justice for all in Wisconsin.
In its July 21, 2016, order, the Wisconsin Supreme Court authorized, under SCR 10.03(4)(f), for registered in-house counsel attorneys in Wisconsin to “provide pro bono legal services without fee or expectation of fee as provided under SCR 20:6.1.”
The request was submitted to the court by the State Bar. The Wisconsin chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, the Corporate Pro Bono initiative, and the Pro Bono Institute supported the request.
The change does not allow registered in-house counsel to appear in court or sign pleadings without first obtaining permission through the pro hac vice admission process.
Is My Bar Association’s Pro Bono Program Eligible?
It depends on whether the program is operated by the bar association (staff or volunteers) and whether it was operating on July 21, 2016, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued its order. Pro bono programs operated by bar associations as of that date were grandfathered in as qualified pro bono programs. Bar association programs created after that date must seek approval from the Board of Bar Examiners.
Can I Claim Ethics Credit for My Pro Bono Work?
No. The rule only provides a way for lawyers to earn general CLE credits.
Can I Claim Pro Bono Work Before Jan. 1, 2017, Toward Credit?
The rule change authorizing lawyers to claim CLE credit for pro bono legal services does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2017, so it is highly unlikely that BBE would allow a lawyer to claim CLE credit for an activity that took place prior to the rule change.
Can I Use Pro Bono Legal Services CLE Credits To Help Me Obtain Reinstatement, Readmission, or Reactivation of My License?
No. The rule prohibits the use of pro bono legal services credit for this purpose.
Where Can I Find a List of the Pro Bono Programs Operated by the State Bar of Wisconsin?
The official list of such programs is maintained by the Board of Bar Examiners and is available to attorneys through BBE’s CLE reporting system. See the list of the programs provided to BBE by the State Bar of Wisconsin in September 2016.
How Can a Program That is Not on the List of Qualified Pro Bono Programs in SCR 31.01(12) Become Qualified?
The BBE has authority under SCR 31.01(12)(d) to approve additional programs. Contact the BBE to determine the process to follow.
Have 50 Hours of Pro Bono Work in 2016? Register Before Feb. 28 for Pro Bono Honor Society
The Wisconsin Pro Bono Honor Society recognizes Wisconsin lawyers who donate at least 50 hours of qualifying pro bono legal services to help provide access to justice for low-income Wisconsin residents.
The honor society is an annual recognition program created by the Access to Justice Commission with support from the State Bar of Wisconsin.
“Qualifying pro bono legal services” means the direct provision of legal services without fee or expectation of fee, or at a substantially reduced fee, to:
persons of limited means;
organizations in matters that primarily address the needs of persons of limited means; or
other organizations to secure or protect civil rights, civil liberties, or public rights so long as a substantial majority of such services benefit persons of limited means or organizations that serve persons of limited means.
Every lawyer who qualifies should be recognized – be sure to submit your certifications online by Feb. 28, 2017. You can submit your certification now if you’ve already reached the 50-hour threshold.
Visit the Commission's website to learn more about the Wisconsin Pro Bono Honor Society.
Find pro bono opportunities that fit your interests and skills in the State Bar’s searchable online pro bono directory at www.wisbar.org/probono.