The pro bono community still believes having attorneys donate their time and professional skills remains a viable method for providing services to low-income individuals and families. But Indiana attorneys overwhelmingly indicate they neither want to be told to volunteer nor be obligated to report their volunteer hours.
The Indiana Lawyer’s 2015 Practicing Law in Indiana survey sparked a strong response to the question of whether attorneys should be required to do pro bono work. Sixty-nine percent said volunteering legal services and reporting the hours should be optional; just 12 percent said doing pro bono work and reporting hours should be mandatory.
The responses likely reflect the unpopularity of Indiana’s new pro bono reporting rule. When attorneys renew their registrations in 2016, they will be required to put down the number of hours they volunteered the previous year helping indigent clients.
The Indiana Supreme Court has emphasized that new Professional Conduct Rule 6.7 is not mandating attorneys provide free legal assistance. Instead, the court wants to know how many total hours are being volunteered by the Indiana legal community in order to get a better idea of the scope of the need within the state.
Despite the negative responses to the new rule, members of the pro bono community see the rule's potential to motivate more attorneys to join the volunteer ranks. Lawyers may be inspired to take a pro bono case or two because they do not want to report zero hours.
Ruth de Wit, administrator of Indiana Pro Bono District C, which covers the northeastern corner of Indiana including Allen County, explained attorneys typically find the experience so rewarding they return, wanting to take more cases.
“Once they do one, it’s easy to get them to do another,” she said.
However, the number of hours Hoosier attorneys donate annually varies widely. Forty percent of the respondents to the Indiana Lawyer survey said they did zero to five hours of pro bono work annually. Meanwhile, 45 percent indicated they do between six and 50 hours per year, and 15 percent log more than 50 hours.
Citing a national study, Monica Fennell, pro bono manager at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, noted the biggest barrier to lawyers doing pro bono work is time. To get around the time crunch, there are a variety of volunteer opportunities besides one-on-one representation, including the mediation assistance program in the federal courts and ask-a-lawyer events.
“I think they all have a role to play. I think they’re all important,” said Fennell, former director of the Indiana Pro Bono Commission, adding the different opportunities meet different needs. “It’s hard to say one is better than another. They all help in different ways.”
Resistance to reporting
Fennell was surprised by the survey results on the reporting rule but she does not think the responses are an indication pro bono work is declining among attorneys.
“I think it’s quite the opposite,” she said. “I think the pro bono culture in Indiana is building.”
Ron Walker, board chair of the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society, speculated the resistance to the reporting rule might be related to the controversy over the federal government’s collection of cell phone data. Lawyers possibly view this as one more piece of information somebody wants and they do not feel it’s anybody’s business how much pro bono work they do or don’t do.
Some attorneys might report zero hours even if they do volunteer and others might protest completely by not doing any pro bono work. Walker, of counsel at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP, hopes far more attorneys will start looking for opportunities to provide free legal assistance.
Doing a little back of the napkin math, de Wit sketched out how the reporting rule could bring in more volunteers.
She estimated District C has about 1,300 attorneys, and of those roughly 1,000 could take a pro bono case. She currently has a roster of 225 volunteer attorneys, but the new rule might be an impetus for some in that untapped pool of potential volunteers to donate their time.
John Floreancig, general counsel at Indianapolis Legal Aid Society, pointed out another way the reporting rule may help. The average lawyer is too busy to do pro bono work, he said, but Rule 6.7 allows lawyers to count any monetary donations to legal service providers. They might be persuaded to make a gift equal to the amount of one of their billable hours to help legal aid do the work.
In District C, de Wit regularly applies for grants and solicits funds from other sources to provide additional and essential resources for the organization. These outside dollars are funneled to recruiting and training volunteer attorneys as well as helping to cover the administration costs of running the district.
Currently, District C has three paralegals who field 10,000 calls each year and a team of pro bono attorneys that handles about 900 to 1,000 cases annually. In 2014, volunteer attorneys donated 4,000 hours and provided legal services equal to about $500,000.
“No matter how much we do and try to do, it just keeps coming,” de Wit said. “The need is really great.”
The situation in District C is echoed throughout the other 11 pro bono districts in the state. Charles Dunlap, executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation, which oversees the districts, said the demand continues to be overwhelming.
In Indiana, pro bono districts have been run on the dollars generated through the Interest on Lawyer Trust Account program. However, the economic crash of 2008 slashed the interest money coming from IOLTA and depleted the funds the bar foundation had put in reserve for rainy days.
Like District C, the bar foundation has started reaching out to philanthropic organizations outside the legal community. Dunlap and Scott Wylie, attorney and director of the Vanderburgh Community Foundation, spent the bulk of this year traveling around the state and educating other charitable groups about the work provided by civil legal aid.
The foundation hoped to plant the seeds for future funding from these sources. In addition, Dunlap and Wylie worked to foster more collaboration between legal aid and other agencies that serve individuals and families in the local communities.
Floreancig said before legal service providers ask for help from the general public, they first have to get more support from within the legal community. Grant writers and fundraisers are going to wonder why they should support legal aid if lawyers are not donating.
“(We) have got to get the legal community to give of their time, talent and treasure,” he said.•