Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When Pro Bono Does Not Work the Way it Should

While the benefits from pro bono work are widely recognized, the “negative effects” are rarely discussed. Perhaps because they are considered so insignificant in comparison to the interests they promote. But, what if these “negative effects” could harm the legal profession?

During the last few months, I have been involved in many different pro bono programs. I have examined the whole process and witnessed how our contribution has generated good: Volunteer lawyers attend a mandatory training that covers basics on the area of practice relevant to the pro bono activity and ethics, and afterward attend legal clinics. Most of the clients I have helped were not “sophisticated persons” and felt oppressed by the legal process. In the end, they were so grateful for the assistance they were granted.

In the absence of the incident described further, I would have never become aware of the potential harm of pro bono services:

On a Thursday morning, when I was volunteering at the Uncontested Divorce Clinic, a group of people entered to the clinic and asked “where are the lawyers, we are looking for lawyers.” At first, nothing was out of the ordinary; a group of people looking for lawyers in the Kings County Supreme Court is likely to happen. But, that was not exactly the case, there was something more profound.

After a short inquiry, we realized that these individuals were looking for the lawyers of another pro bono program. At that very moment, we also became aware of the tone of their voices and the expression on their faces: they screamed disdain for the legal profession. I got the impression they were demanding: “where is my free lawyer.”

Legal services perceived as a free commodity by the public can have long term devastating effects on the legal profession, such as having clients taking our work and/or availability for granted.

Making a difference for indigents seeking legal services should not be at the expense of the volunteer attorneys who donate their time, energy and expertise to promote the interest of justice.

What can be done to frustrate the potential evils of pro bono legal services?

My proposal is to reconsider the way we deliver our free legal services. Pro bono programs should have a wisely crafted internal policy conveying unequivocally the value of the services provided and the idea that nothing should be taken for granted.

Pro bono clients must understand that being found eligible for pro bono legal assistance is an exceptional privilege and the waiver of attorney’s fees is not right.

** This is the first post from Pascal Partouche.  Thanks, Pascal, we look forward to hearing from you more.


Josie said...

By Mr. Partouche's logic, only rich people are allowed to be demanding of their lawyers, and poor people who cannot afford representation should be grateful for whatever half-efforts and spare time they can scrape together from volunteers. We should not allow access to courts and zealous representation only to those who have deep pockets and resources. Every man, woman and child should have equal access to courts and the right to access the representation those courts nearly always require.

The problem is not with the attitude of your indigent clients, Mr. Partouche -- it is with a profession that creates and maintains an aura of exclusivity so as to keep out lay people, and then refuses to help those who cannot afford their services.

Task Force on Professionalism said...

Dear Josie:

I was delighted to see that you found my post interesting, but at the same time I was sorry to see my position mischaracterized. I am not advocating for the end of pro bono. On the contrary, as a volunteer who participates actively in several pro bono programs, I wanted to raise my concerns about a specific behavior which can be corrected with new policies that would generate an overall benefit to the legal profession and the way it is perceived by the public.

The idea behind my post was not to deprive the indigent access to legal services or to reserve the right to representation solely for people who can afford it. I believe that professionalism is connected to pro bono and the way these services are rendered is a part of professionalism too.

There is nothing wrong with conveying the value of free legal services to its beneficiaries. They still get the help they need for free and simply get a sense of its value, which would reduce the probability of being in a situation such as the one I described in my original post.

Appreciation of services provided should not be neglected. It is an important factor in the volunteering experience that motivates volunteers to come again and perform beyond the scope of what is expected from them.

My sincere apologies if my position was not clear enough. I hope my response will prevent any future misinterpretations.