January 4, 2019
The time has come for mandatory pro bono service
By Bryan Neft
I am ready for Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 to be mandatory. Rule 6.1 governs the lawyer’s duty to provide (or fund) pro bono legal services. The rule, as written, is discretionary. I know I am on my soap box again. But for the last 11 years or so, I have watched how our public legal service agencies have cut back on services in the face of significant IOLTA shortfalls resulting from extremely low interest rates. In 2007, the Pennsylvania IOLTA Board collected nearly $14 million in IOLTA interest for legal-aid programs across the Commonwealth. After the recession of 2008 hit, the amount of interest collected declined to about $3 million, where it remained flat for years. Interest rates for the first time are slowly rising. For 2017, the PA IOLTA Board collected approximately $3.6 million in interest. While this is a good sign, it is still well below where it needs to be.
It’s one thing for me to spout off numbers. But the real tragedy is the effect low interest rates have had on our legal service providers. Since the recession, Neighborhood Legal Services has had to close offices. The organization has had to pick and choose which services to provide and which services not to provide. NLS is not alone. Agencies throughout the Commonwealth have had to have the same discussions. And yet the staff of these organizations, the real heroes that they are, carry on.
That’s where Rule 6.1 comes in. There is so much need for legal services for those that cannot afford it; but not enough people step up to the plate to provide those services. In 2014, Chief Justice Ronald Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made an urgent plea to members of the Pennsylvania bar to volunteer for pro bono representation. He noted that only one out of every 10 individuals who need legal services would get those services. Four years later, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor wrote the same plea.
Our Supreme Court has been a steadfast supporter of legal aid programs. The court has looked for and found alternative sources of funding to help ameliorate IOLTA shortfalls. The Court created a student-loan forgiveness program for lawyers who work for legal-aid organizations. More recently, it created an emeritus status for retired attorneys that allow those attorneys to provide pro bono services more easily. But we still need the help of those who are practicing.
In my religion, Judaism, even one who receives charity is required to give back a portion of what he or she receives to help others. Although not a perfect analogy, it means that we all must do our share. For lawyers, that means providing pro bono services or funding legal aid organizations.
While there are many ways to get involved with a pro bono opportunity, there are three specific projects coordinated by the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership that need additional volunteers – the Custody Conciliation Project, the Protection from Abuse Project and the Real Estate/Tangled Title Project. If your organization, or you individually, would like more information about these or the partnership’s other volunteer opportunities, please email partnership Chair Jeff Weimer at email@example.com
. Another avenue is to contact Barbara Griffin at the Allegheny County Bar Foundation. She will have dozens of suggestions on ways to get involved, and in areas that may fit your interests. Or you can check learn about current opportunities by clicking the “volunteer” button at pittsburghprobono.org
If you are untrained, the Bar Foundation or another legal service provider will train you. I know it sounds cliché, but if every attorney in Allegheny County took one case pro bono, we would meet the need within the county of representation to those that can’t afford it. If we can’t do it on our own, then I say it’s time to make Rule 6.1 mandatory.