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Pro bono in decline: stats show a drop-off in the number of lawyers performing pro bono and the hours rendered.

While the membership of The Florida Bar may be increasing, the number of lawyers doing pro bono work for the poor appears to be declining, as is the number of hours they give and the money they donate to legal aid.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente brought those 2005-2006 numbers to the Bar Board of Governors' January meeting and called on board members to find ways to reverse that trend. She spoke the day after the Supreme Court held its annual pro bono awards ceremony.

"One of my requests would be that each of you in your circuits go back home and talk to your executive directors of legal aid services and find out who are your pro bono legal coordinators and what can you do in your community to help," Pariente told the board. "Let's start to think of ways right now that we can fix this."

She cited several statistics, based on reports from Bar annual membership fee forms--where lawyers are required to report their pro bono work for the poor--and from reports by local pro bono coordinators for legal aid agencies:

* In 1998, lawyers performed 163,000 hours of pro bono work for the poor through local legal aid agencies. By 2005, that had declined to 81,000 hours.

* 26,000 lawyers provided pro bono through local legal aid agencies in 1998, compared to 16,000 in 2005.

* Lawyers reported on their Bar membership fee forms providing 1.3 million hours of pro bono work for the poor in 2005, down from 1.5 million in 1998. "The pure number of hours has plateaued; in fact it looks like it went down," Pariente said.

* Lawyers in 2005 donated $3.4 million to legal aid programs in lieu of the aspirational 20 hours of pro bono work. That was down from $3.7 million in 1998.

* Of the Bar's 80,000 members, 16,000 did pro bono through legal aid agencies and "only 30,000 of our 80,000 are doing it at all. That's less than half of our lawyers," Pariente said.

* 15,000 Bar members failed to report on their annual dues form whether they were performing pro bono work for the poor. Under Bar rules, providing 20 hours a year of pro bono or donating $350 to a legal aid organization is an aspirational goal. But Bar members are required under the rules to report on their annual membership fee form whether they met the goal.

Pariente noted the juxtaposition of her comments coming a day after the pro bono ceremony, which she said she found inspiring. She noted attorney Sandy D' Alemberte, winner of this year's Tobias Simon Pro Bono Servcie Award, said in his comments that lawyers when taking their oath promise to provide legal services to the less fortunate.

"Everything about that ceremony was great," the justice said. "My thing is if we don't pay attention to this, we're going to go downhill.... We've got to figure it out or we're not going to be able to rest on our laurels [of doing a good job of providing pro bono]."

Pariente and the board discussed several ways of boosting lawyers' pro bono efforts, including ways to have the 15,000 nonreporting Bar members disclose their pro bono services on their annual fee form.

Bar Executive John F. Harkness, Jr., noted that when the mandatory pro bono reporting rule--controversial among Bar members--was approved, the board agreed on a policy that it would not seek to discipline those who fail to report. (The board, by a one-vote margin, actually opposed the mandatory reporting rule amendment, which had been recommended by a special pro bono commission.)

"The solution isn't to discipline 15,000 lawyers," Bar President Hank Coxe said. "But maybe we could send them a letter and say we noticed they didn't report and we have an expectation that they will report on the next dues statement."

Other suggestions made by Pariente and board members include:

* Asking all of the state's law schools to follow the practice of some and require pro bono service by law students, as a way in showing them the value and rewards of pro bono work.

* Having the Florida Board of Bar Examiners look at requiring a certain amount of pro bono work from those who apply to join the Bar.

* Asking judicial nominating commissions to inquire of judicial applicants about their pro bono work. Coxe noted at one of his editorial board visits, a newspaper said it wanted to see pro bono records when considering the endorsement of judicial candidates.

* Posting lawyers' reported pro bono services on their biographical pages on the Bar's Web site.

* Redesigning the fee form to make reporting easier, and allow lawyers to report their pro bono work via the Bar's Web site.

* Having a special award for the circuit with the highest percentage of lawyers who report pro bono work. Pariente, though, said that likely would be won by either the Ninth Circuit or the Second Circuit where, respectively, the Orange County Bar Association and the Tallahassee Bar Association require their members to provide pro bono work as a condition of membership.

* Publicize the benefits of providing pro bono work. Pariente noted that at the pro bono ceremony Mac Richard McCoy, who received the Young Lawyers Division's Pro Bono Service Award, said he personally got more from his pro bono work than he gave.

Gary Blankenship

Senior Editor
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Author:Blankenship, Gary
Publication:Florida Bar News
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Feb 15, 2007
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