The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
May 19, 2011

PBI Goes to Boston

How can we begin to solve the crisis in legal aid?  What are issues facing pro bono lawyers in the “new normal?”

On Tuesday, May 17, the Boston Bar Association held a roundtable to discuss these issues with PBI’s very own Esther Lardent, as well as roundtable co-chairs Al Wallis, executive director of the Brown Rudnick Center for the Public Interest at Brown Rudnick LLP*, and Carolyn Rosenthal, pro bono manager at Goodwin Procter LLP*.  The discussion was moderated by Lynn Girton, chief counsel of the Volunteer Lawyers Project, and Sue Finegan from Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo, P.C*, both co-chairs of the Delivery of Legal Services Section of the BBA.  This annual event convenes law firms, legal departments, and a wide range of public interest organizations, including legal services providers, pro bono programs, law schools and the courts; with the shared goal of working together to address the growing problem of access to justice.

The participants’ conversation focused on profound changes that have occurred among law firms and public interest organizations in the past few years, citing legal services groups’ greater need for assistance along with a lack of resources.  In turn, firm representatives spoke of “associate anxiety” causing lawyers to become averse to risk-taking in pro bono matters.  A law firm participant noted she was having problems pitching pro bono to returning deferred associates because they are more focused on billable work to catch up to their colleagues’ established careers.  A proposed solution to this issue was marketing and packaging pro bono as a professional development opportunity.  And Lardent noted that laterals tend to move to a law firm where there is a strong pro bono culture and a work-life balance, and that clients tend to hire a firm with a strong pro bono practice.  She went on to suggest that public interest organizations should market their legal services needs to firms by highlighting how taking on the pro bono project will advance firm interests.  By showcasing how pro bono offers meaningful, valuable experience for lawyers, firms will be more willing to take on pro bono matters.

The roundtable also concluded that, in the past few years, there has been a structural change in the justice system, making it necessary to change the system as a whole.  Lardent recommended that larger collaborations between law firms, in-house counsel, and public interest organizations could successfully target overarching issues. For example, barely 1-2% of evicted tenants have lawyers; all these groups could collaborate to address that issue and thereby have a more effective impact.

How would you propose collaboration among firms and public interest providers to alleviate the legal services crisis?  Were you at the roundtable?  We’d love to hear about it.  Leave us a comment and let us know!

*denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®