In terms of pro bono service, our profession has a long way to go.
Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 makes clear that “[e]very lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.” To that end, the Rule says that lawyers “should aspire to render at least fifty (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”
Let’s be honest, though: 50 hours is pretty paltry. If you take a two-week vacation, you can still satisfy Rule 6.1 with just one pro bono hour per week. Even for busy lawyers, that’s hardly “aspir[ational].” Yet a large majority of lawyers aren’t even approaching that bare-bones ethical minimum. In 2017, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service conducted a survey of over 47,000 lawyers across 24 states. Here’s what they found:
- Barely half of responding lawyers provided any pro bono services in 2016.
- Not even 20% of responding lawyers fulfilled Rule 6.1’s minimum requirement.
- Roughly one in five responding attorneys reported never having provided pro bono services of any kind. (Read: Roughly one in five lawyers admitted to having committed professional misconduct.)
And the problem isn’t that there’s too little pro bono work to go around. The 2017 Justice Gap Report, published by the Legal Services Corporation, revealed that in 2016, 86% of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal assistance. And there’s good reason to believe that the pandemic has exacerbated that access-to-justice gap.
As attorneys, we have a state-sanctioned monopoly on legal services. If we don’t work to close the access-to-justice gap, no one will. But across the board, we are falling far short of our professional and moral obligations. We must do better.