Good for Everyone: Pro Bono and Veggies Go Mainstream

By Margaret Benson | Executive Director, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services

CBF Executive Director Bob Glaves is taking a well-deserved break. So this month, Meg Benson, Executive Director of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, is ably filling in with a first-ever MEGservation.

Pro bono is like veganism. Although it’s good for you and benefits society, people have been skeptical. But now both practices are popular enough that even people who don’t do them claim they do.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the stone ages of the legal profession, before email, business processes and data analytics, many law firms didn’t have much interest in providing direct legal services to low-income clients. While some handled pro bono law reform cases through organizations like the ACLU and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, most firms didn’t think their attorneys should handle direct legal services for poor people.

Many attorneys believed that the lawyers who were paid to represent poor people were really the only ones capable of handling their legal issues. The problem was that then, as now, there weren’t enough legal aid attorneys. As a result, only a small percentage of the people in Chicago who were being evicted, needed a divorce, or were being taken to the cleaners by unscrupulous creditors, ever saw a lawyer.

That rigid division law firms made between pro bono for impact litigation (good) and pro bono for individual poor people (yikes) was put to the test in 1964 when a handful of Kirkland & Ellis associates set up folding tables and chairs in a few churches in low-income Chicago neighborhoods. By fall, the Chicago Bar Association was concerned enough about these rogue attorneys that it asked its Professional Ethics Committee to review whether the program, “with its implications, poses an ethical question, and if so, what Canons of Ethics of the Chicago Bar Association are involved?”

Several months later, the ethics committee conditionally approved allowing these lawyers to continue to provide free legal advice and services, as long as they ensured that their clients were genuinely poor and that they be supervised by the CBA’s Legal Aid Committee. John Ferren, the leader of this radical group of young attorneys (and now a Senior Judge on the DC Court of Appeals), worked with the Legal Aid Committee and the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Bureau to alleviate the bar’s concerns.

Within a few years, John’s band of merry men had grown from a few volunteers into a sizeable force of pro bono warriors who met with clients around the city in church basements and, eventually, in space donated by community organizations. These pro bono attorneys weren’t just from Kirkland anymore. They came from a lot of Chicago law firms and legal practices, some big, some small. And, they were no longer just men. As more and more women entered the profession, they also joined the pro bono movement.

And it had truly become a movement. Pro bono took off around the country, especially after federal funding cuts in the early 1980’s hit legal aid offices hard. As legal aid staff struggled to do more with less, the organized bar realized that attorneys providing pro bono legal services could supplement beleaguered legal aid lawyers. At the same time, those overworked legal aid lawyers saw good-hearted attorneys who wanted to help poor people and who had the skill to do so. This rapprochement between legal aid and the organized bar grew as staff and volunteers worked together to ease the ever-growing unmet legal need of Chicago’s poor.

Today pro bono is recognized as an essential component of any fully functioning legal services system and something that attorneys are supposed to do. But the days of running a pro bono program like a neighborhood block party are long gone.

Just as law practices have changed immensely since the early 1960’s, so too has pro bono. Any well-run legal practice, whether private, legal aid or pro bono, needs certain tools to function. Technology is here to stay, which means that pro bono offices can no longer match clients to attorneys with a rolodex and a telephone. They need computers and a robust database. And today’s volunteer attorneys are so busy chasing billables that they can’t afford to spend time on pro bono administrative chores.

Every pro bono program, from a courthouse-based clinic, to one that handles litigation, needs a back office so that the volunteers can deliver high-quality legal services. That may include meeting space for volunteers and clients, clerking and docketing assistance, access to online legal research and even something as basic as a photocopier or scanner.

It also includes knowledgeable, friendly staff attorneys to train and support the volunteers. Pro bono attorneys handling a new area of law or volunteers altogether new to the practice of law need training. Nearly all attorneys, even the most experienced, need legal support from time to time.

And what do the clients need? They need to know that a pro bono program has their back. Programs should carry malpractice coverage for volunteers who advise or represent clients. They also need staff attorneys who are available to handle cases that, for whatever reason, volunteers can’t complete. Successful pro bono programs live by President Truman’s credo: “The buck stops here.”

The bottom line is that pro bono attorneys need a staffed, functioning law office. Luckily, the Chicago area meets that need—organizations that provide good support to their pro bono volunteers.

While money is essential for running a pro bono program, it’s also a really good deal because it takes your hard-earned dollars and stretches them to benefit far more low-income clients than you could help alone. This, in turn, benefits our profession and society. The Illinois Supreme Court recognizes that value by requiring attorneys to report monetary donations to qualified legal services organizations, which include pro bono programs, in addition to reporting pro bono hours.

Like veganism, pro bono has gone mainstream. We know that it’s good for us and for society, but it’s not all or nothing. You don’t have to be vegan to feel better and you don’t have to devote every waking hour to pro bono. Cut back on burgers and eat more vegetables. Professionally, focus on your practice but sprinkle in some pro bono. Like eating a healthier diet, it’s good for you and you’ll feel better.

And whether or not you are a volunteer, contribute money to a pro bono program. Support the folks who make it possible for volunteers to do good. You’ll be surprised at how good that’ll make you feel.