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Our season of service: meeting the pro bono challenge: need is up and resources are down in this struggling economy. Now more than ever is the time to give your time, talent, and treasure to the pro bono cause.

President Obama--an ISBA member--has called us to a season of service. I challenge all of us to answer the call. The unfunded civil justice needs of Illinois citizens should be an embarrassment to all of us. I want you to consider (even if you have never done so before) getting involved with pro bono.

These are challenging times for pro bono. Need is up--more clients are seeking free legal services than ever before. Many of them are people who, until recently, would not have been financially eligible. Now they're out of work and, often, out of unemployment compensation. Legal service programs are seeing people who are in danger of losing their homes ... their cars ... their families. They need an attorney to help them file for bankruptcy or divorce, defend an eviction, or resolve a consumer or collection case.

Our legal profession is also facing challenges as law firms lay off attorneys, defer new associates, or jettison entire practice groups. Small firms and solo practitioners are struggling to keep existing clients and find new ones.

Times are tough. To paraphrase the great philosopher Pogo, the legal profession is confronted with insurmountable opportunities. Now is a great time for attorneys from all areas and sizes of practice to take on some pro bono work. The need exists and an attorney would have to work very, very hard indeed to not find at least one interesting, feasible pro bono case or project.

It is important to note that many of you will have to go a little outside of your comfort zone if you want to help where the need is greatest. That means, don't simply take on a routine matter in your area of expertise, take on a contested or complicated case. Handle a custody case or a suit to quiet title.

Ultimately, litigation is litigation, so if you go to court on a regular basis, you can handle nearly anything a pro bono program can throw at you. And if you're not a courtroom regular but are willing to go to court, most programs can use you. Now is the time to do it they need your help now.

If you really can't afford to donate your time on a pro bono case right now, or you simply can't stand the thought of handling one, consider donating money instead. Although pro bono legal services are incredibly cost effective, they are not free. From malpractice coverage for all volunteers to a friendly, knowledgeable, available staff, a legal services program provides protections and support that make pro bono not just possible but practical, protected, and, pleasant.

The Illinois Supreme Court recognized the need for financial support by allowing attorneys to report appropriate contributions in addition to volunteer hours.

Supreme court rule 756(f) states, in part, that an attorney "shall report the approximate amount of his or her pro bono legal service and the amount of qualified monetary contributions made during the preceding 12 months." A qualified financial contribution is one made to an organization that "provides legal services to persons of limited means or which contributes financial support to such an organization."

The generosity of Illinois lawyers speaks volumes. In 2008, 14,000 Illinois lawyers reported to the Supreme Court that they had provided 1.1 million hours of pro bono legal services directly to persons of limited needs. Multiply that by an average hourly billing rate and you have a staggering sum of money!

Also, Illinois attorneys reported making $15 million in direct monetary contributions to legal service providers. Clearly, the system would collapse without us.

For its part, the ISBA is committed to increasing pro bono legal assistance throughout Illinois. Through its Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, the ISBA is working with the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) and Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) to develop the Pro Bono Pairing and Mentoring Matching System.

The system, expected to launch in spring 2010, has two purposes: "To match new pro bono practitioners with experienced lawyers who will serve as pro bono mentors; and to pair volunteers with one another to increase the number of people doing pro bono as well as the number of clients served."

PILI, a 30-year-old nonprofit with a mission of cultivating a lifelong commitment to public interest law, is developing the system with a recent grant from the Illinois Bar Foundation to promote and expand pro bono outside of Cook County. ILAO is a natural partner in this work as they serve as a virtual statewide legal information center for legal aid and pro bono attorneys.

Information about pro bono opportunities, training materials and other resources are freely available at ILAO's pro bono site, www.illinoisprobono. org. When launched, the Pro Bono Pairing and Mentoring Matching System will be part of this site.

The ISBA is also participating in the American Bar Association's 2009 Pro Bono Week Celebration October 26-30. The Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services is working to develop a pro bono page on the ISBA Web site that will be launched in time for the celebration. During that week, the committee will also issue its call for nominations for the John C. McAndrews Pro Bono Service Award.

Whether you take a pro bono case or donate money to a pro bono program, there has never been a better time to dive, head first, into the pro bono sea. Legal service programs and their clients need you now. Embrace the need and make your profession proud.
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Author:O'Brien, John G.
Publication:Illinois Bar Journal
Article Type:President's page
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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