Volunteering in a Recession

I heard an interview today with a representative of a nonprofit organization that matches volunteers with organizations in need—a sort of match-maker in the volunteer context. Interestingly, the representative reported an increase in the number of available volunteers during the recession (see also here and here). She attributed this trend to two things: people who had lost their jobs wanting to keep up their skills while searching for new employment and people generally wanting to help others in need.

The report piqued my interest regarding whether the recession was having a similar, positive effect on the provision of pro bono legal services. I suspected that more people were in greater need of legal assistance as a result of the recession, which in fact turns out to be the case (see here and here). I did not know, however, whether lawyers were meeting this increased demand. I like to think we are, but the profession’s record on this point is not necessarily encouraging (see, e.g., here).

The results appear mixed. Some reports suggest that the level of pro bono activity has remained the same or increased slightly in the past few years (but see here). (For interesting perspectives on the recession and the legal profession, including pro bono legal services, see here and here.) Nevertheless, even these increased activity levels fall woefully short of the reported need. So, given high lawyer unemployment rates and the desire to better train new lawyers, why does this gap exist?

Some law firms have encouraged associates who were deferred or underutilized at the firm to pursue pro bono activities (see, e.g., here and here). This approach likely is a win-win situation because the law firm and associates satisfy their ethical obligations to provide pro bono legal services, both also get the benefit of on-the-job skills training for younger lawyers and people get the legal help they need. Hopefully, this trend will continue after the economy and the legal market recover.  (For an interesting discussion of pro bono work in the U.S. Supreme Court, see here.)

Many bar associations, courts and law schools (see, e.g., here, here and here) have pro bono and access to justice programs that make wonderful contributions to their communities and the profession. These efforts started well before the recession and likely will continue well after. But their success depends on lawyers’ commitment to the recommended 50 hours of pro bono service per year under the ethical rules. Reports suggest that 50 percent or less of lawyers actually meet this aspirational goal, at least in certain jurisdictions (see, e.g., here and here). Notably, Mississippi is considering a mandatory pro bono requirement for its lawyers (see also here).

What does this all mean for the profession and the underserved? I am not quite sure, but the cynic in me suspects that, when the dust settles, it will mean very little, as the value of pro bono work remains unrecognized in many law firm cultures.  One nonetheless can hope that the underprivileged and underserved become surprising beneficiaries of a recession-generated upswing in pro bono activity.

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6 Responses

  1. C.T. says:

    Another factor may be that, unlike other professions, an out of work attorney may not easily be able to provide pro bono services without obtaining costly malpractice insurance.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    Reviewing the ABA rule, another problem comes to mind: one also has a professional responsibility to render competent service. Consider someone who’s spent his entire career in patent prosecution, or, for that matter, in M&A negotiation. While their lawyerly skills might have some application outside their specialties, they probably aren’t competent to handle litigation. And despite the fact that there are people seeking to organize not-for-profits, they usually aren’t clamoring for attention — and not-for-profit work is also becoming its own field of expertise. If non-litigators are going to meet such pro bono requirements, then there should be a great deal more infrastructure: first, in educating them about the special needs of charitable organizations, and second, in specialized clearing houses that match appropriate needs and skills. As a securities/corporate transactional associate many years ago I offered my services to a general legal services charity in L.A., but I really didn’t have any idea how to handle the matters their clients needed help with. Of course, the ABA rule’s item (b)(3) is something even ignoramuses like me could and should participate in.

  3. Maryland Conservatarian says:

    These are ABA ethical rules and I suspect the primary motivation behind them is the alternative buy-out provision within – just another way for certain favored groups to rake in the bucks from harried lawyers for whom another 50 hours of legal work (it can’t even be coaching the kid’s soccer team) just isn’t doable.
    …and if they make it mandatory, watch for the explosion in resources that conservative and libertarian groups will then have to fight the good fight for free markets, free speech (FIRE) and the rights of the unborn….

  4. Michelle Harner says:

    All: Thank you for these great comments. You actually identify several of the arguments often highlighted in the pro bono debate, and I do not think there are any easy answers. I believe that several organizations work with lawyers to provide malpractice insurance for volunteers and additional training to encourage lawyers to devote their time and services to pro bono work. (I have included a link below explaining these types of opportunities.) Nevertheless, it can still be an uneasy endeavor for many lawyers. And as noted, monetary contributions—which can be very helpful to legal aid organizations—also can raise questions. In any event, as A.J. suggests, even more collaboration among lawyers, law schools, bar associations and non-profits likely is needed to address these issues and continue forward progress. Best regards, Michelle.


  5. Andy says:

    (in Maryland)Michelle is right, pro bono attorneys get malpractice ins. through the referral programs any many pro bono programs provide training and mentorship so that jumping into a new specialty (to avoid any potential conflict, try something new, etc.) is not as nerve wracking. If a pro bono situation escalates to the point that the volunteer atty needs to hand off to someone more experienced the referral programs do so.
    Also, just so all you really super smart attorneys know, there are lots of ways to serve pro bono without directly handling a case: mentoring a pb attorney within your own specialty, writing content for websites geared toward assisting the public navigate the system pro se, staffing a clinic, etc.

  6. Michelle Harner says:

    Andy: Thank you for this additional information. I have attached a link below to one of the several Maryland organizations that help facilitate pro bono opportunities for lawyers. Best regards, Michelle.