Mandatory Pro Bono Down In Ole Miss

Lawyering on the Chain Gang

The Mississippi Supreme Court is considering whether to require the state’s lawyers to either provide “at least 20 hours of free service to the poor each year” or buy their way out of the requirement by donating “$200 to $500” a year in fees.  The arguments for an against mandatory pro bono – whether in law schools or in practice – are familiar.  Lawyers in the Mississippi make them pretty well:

Don Lacy of,_Mississippi. . .  lambastes the proposal as “an unprecedented and unjustifiable unilateral extension of the authority of the court.”

“Other than perhaps the priesthood, I am unaware of any profession which requires its members, as a condition of their right to practice their craft, to contribute a portion of their income to charity,” Lacy said in a letter to the court.

There are supporters, however, and Will Bardwell, a Jackson lawyer in private practice for a little more than a year, is among them.

“I understand the argument, doubtlessly voiced by many of my colleagues, that no one should be required to provide what is, in essence, community service,” Bardwell said. “Fundamentally, I agree. But the fact is that attorneys are different. That distinction exists as both an honor, and sometimes, a burden.

For what it is worth, I’m with Lacy.  If the State thinks that there is a need for more and cheaper legal work for the poor, it should loosen restrictions on entry into the profession.  This proposal, which increases barriers to entry and to practice, may make the problem worse.

(But see SHG)

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1 Response

  1. Brian Sheppard says:

    Although I’m a bit embarassed by this self-promotion, I think those interested in the issue might enjoy looking at the piece I recently published with Fiery Cushman: Evaluating Norms, 63 Vand. L. Rev. 55 (2010). We used behavioral experimentation to shed light on how different norm combinations (aspirational vs. mandatory and rules vs. standards) affected charitable giving within a dictator game. One of our hopes was that this work would provide some insight into whether switching from aspirational pro bono rules to mandatory rules would produce an overall increase in pro bono hours. Our results suggest that the switch risks crowding out intrinsic charitable motives and causing an overall reduction in pro bono hours. In order to overcome this reduction, it might be necessary to set rather aggressive hour minimums. Of course, further study is necessary, but I beleive this work provides some important empirical support for some of our basic intuitions about norm effectiveness in this context.