President's Message

Posted by: A. Brown on May 1, 2011

May's 2011 President's Column

Pro Bono Work -- Why Some Lawyers Do It and Some Don't

By A. Todd Brown


Pro bono publico is a Latin phrase meaning "for the public good." Pro bono work reportedly traces its origins back to ancient Rome, where Roman noblemen known as "jurisconsults" gave free legal advice.  The English legal system, under the 1275 First Statute of Westminster, codified a lawyer's obligation to serve the poor for free.  And while uncertainty exists over whether its enactment was intended to put lawyers out of business or to promote a social conscience, a 1645 Virginia statute from early American colonial times made pro bono service mandatory and prohibited lawyers from charging a fee for their services -- apparently to anyone!  Fortunately, that draconian view faded and lawyers were allowed to charge for their services.  The point is that since ancient times, whether through voluntary or involuntary methods, the legal profession has recognized the lawyer's obligation to provide legal services to those unable to pay for them.  It is a duty emanating from the privilege of being permitted to practice law.[1]              


Despite its long-standing tradition and the obvious salutary benefits of pro bono work, bar associations regularly remind us of the obligation to give back to the communities from which we take much as we go about the business of practicing law.  The ABA's Model Rules of Professional Conduct serves as an overarching reminder of our pro bono duties.  In North Carolina, only a year ago the North Carolina State Bar adopted Rule 6.1, Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service, which urges lawyers to aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services each year and to contribute financially to pro bono organizations assisting persons of limited means.  This is so, in part, because the legal needs of the poor remain high and constant.


Lawyers engage in pro bono work for a host of reasons satisfactory to themselves.  In her recent book, "Pro Bono in Principle and in Practice: Public Service and the Professions," Stanford University Press (2005), Professor Deborah L. Rhode, long an advocate for increased pro bono work, comments thusly, "Much of what passes for 'pro bono' is not aid to the poor or to public interest causes, but either favors for friends, family, or clients, or cases where fees turn out to be uncollectible.  The bar's pro bono activities are, in short, a reflection of both the profession's highest ideals and its most grating hypocrisies." (Id. at 1.)  As we enjoy the privilege of dispensing legal services because we are members of the greatest profession in the world, let us endeavor to reconcile our pro bono efforts with our professional obligation to help those lacking in resources gain access to the legal system.  


Pro bono work has resulted in landmark public interest cases, thereby providing much needed assistance to citizens unable to afford the pursuit of justice.  For an example we need look no further than the pro bono work of our very own John R. "Buddy" Wester in Hyatt et al. v. Shalala, a suit challenging the termination and denial of social security benefits to disabled North Carolinians.  The case commenced as a statewide class action lawsuit undertaken as a project of the MCB's Volunteer Lawyer Project with Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont.  For 20 years, Buddy led a team of lawyers prosecuting the case, which involved five decisions by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and two certiorari petitions to the Supreme Court.  As a result of rulings for the Hyatt class members, over 150,000 North Carolinians became eligible for rehearings on their disability claims.  For its advocacy in Hyatt, the Robinson Bradshaw law firm was the first in the nation to receive the ABAs Pro Bono Publico Award.  


Why are some lawyers eager, and others reluctant, to do pro bono work?  A recent survey by LexisNexis entitled, "Why Lawyers Give Back, A window into drivers and barriers of lawyers' engagement in pro bono work (March 2011), suggests some answers.  The on-line survey was conducted in November 2010 among a nationally representative sample of 207 small and large law firms across all seniority levels.  The upshot: "Based on the survey's findings, there is a clear desire on the part of practicing attorneys to be more involved with pro bono work." (Id. at 3.)  The survey posits that law firms serious about encouraging and expanding pro bono work among the ranks must find ways to (1) install passion, (2) make it personal and (3) remove barriers.  In short, the survey suggests that law firms looking to build out their pro bono programs should strive to appeal to the personal side of their attorneys -- leveraging their employees' passions and personal interests -- rather than focusing only on potential career advantages." (Id. at 3-4.)  The particulars of why lawyers take on pro bono work or not are set forth below: 





Lawyers are trained in law school to do the right thing.  We enter the practice of law wanting to do the right thing.  Then, like others, we get busy trying to strike the balance among family, work, religion, community, civic and public service obligations, to name just a few.  But as we seek equipoise, let us endeavor also to find time to abide our profession's long-standing tradition and obligation of pro bono service.




[1] See generally Judith L. Maute, Changing Conceptions of Lawyers Pro Bono Responsibilities: From Change Noblesse Oblige to Stated Expectations, 77 Tul. L. Rev. 91, 96-98 (2002) (citations omitted).