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Bell: 3 things to know about reporting pro bono hours

September 24, 2014

3 things-bell onlyReady or not, Rule 6.7 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct will hit the books Jan. 1, 2015. This rule will require an attorney to report his or her pro bono hours at the time of annual registration. If you are not a retired attorney, a member of the judiciary, a judicial staff member or a government lawyer prohibited from providing legal services outside of your employment, this reporting requirement likely applies to you. Here are three things to know about mandatory reporting of pro bono hours.

1. If you thought you were going to get paid on a case, but got stiffed, that is not pro bono service.

Hypothetically, let’s say your client has resources. He has a credit card and a checkbook, too. However, he can’t seem to find either of these items when it comes time to talk about his bill. Throughout the case, your client said he would pay you, but now the case has come and gone and he won’t answer the phone. It’s time to face reality. You got stiffed.

If you can’t have money, wouldn’t it be nice to have something to show for your effort other than the satisfaction of a job well done? It might also be nice if your client actually appreciated you, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you. Your client doesn’t need you any longer and you should forget about appreciation and the prospect of getting paid.

Can you call what you did for this client “pro bono” service? I just checked my Magic 8 Ball and it appears that the “outlook” is “not so good.” According to new Rule 6.7(b)(1) of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct, “Reportable pro bono legal services are those legal services rendered directly to or for the benefit of persons reasonably perceived to be of limited means without charge or expectation of a fee by the lawyer at the time service commences.” (Emphasis added.) The term “limited means” is defined as “individuals or families whose household incomes are up to 200% of the federal poverty guidelines.” Id. Furthermore, Rule 6.7(b)(3) specifically says that “pro bono legal services do not include legal services written off as bad debts.” (Emphasis added.)

So you are not going to be able to call these hours “pro bono hours.” But there is a name for the hours you spent grinding away on this particular client’s case. To find out what these hours are called, please go to the ICLEF’s YouTube channel and watch Episode 7, “Pro Bono” starring the Amateur Lifecoach and guest starring Judge Marc Rothenberg.

2. Serving the legal profession is usually not pro bono service.

So you spent all day at a board meeting for your favorite bar association working on ways to improve the legal profession. Is that pro bono service? What about the CLE you taught for free or the law school class you taught? Can those activities be included as pro bono service? What about the time that you spent on your county’s Local Rules Committee attempting to improve the court system?

Unless the above activities were “aimed at assisting persons of limited means,” Rule 6.7(b)(3) will not permit the time spent on these endeavors to be considered pro bono hours. Specifically, pro bono legal services “do not include services rendered to improve the law, the legal system, or the legal profession unless solely aimed at assisting persons of limited means.” Id. So while the time you spend assisting your profession certainly has intrinsic value, it is not reportable pursuant to Rule 6.7.

3. How many hours do I need to report?

In 2013, it was reported in the Indiana Lawyer that the Indiana Pro Bono Commission had an aspirational goal for each Indiana attorney to perform 50 hours of pro bono service a year. However, the current rule does not have a minimal requirement for the amount of hours reported.

The reporting requirement simply requires a report of “approximately ___ hours of reportable pro bono legal services for the previous calendar year ending December 31.” See Prof. Cond. R. 6.7(a)(1). In addition to reporting the amount of pro bono hours that were performed, the rule permits an attorney to report his or her financial contribution to certain legal service organizations.

Finally, will your pro bono service or your financial contributions to legal service organizations be made public? For now, the answer is no. Information received pursuant to this Rule 6.7 will not be publicly disclosed on “an individual or firm-wide basis.” See Prof. Cond. R. 6.7(a)(2).•

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James J. Bell is an attorney with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. He assists lawyers and judges with professional liability and legal ethics issues. He also practices in criminal defense and is a regular speaker on criminal defense and ethics topics. Bell can be reached at jbell@bgdlegal.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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