ABA study finds time constraints hamper pro bono activities

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While an overwhelming majority of attorneys surveyed by the American Bar Association support pro bono work as a part of the legal profession, less than half indicated they were going to provide such help in 2017.

The finding was part of a new ABA study, “Supporting Justice: A Report on the Pro Bono Work of American Lawyers,” which surveyed attorneys in 24 states across the country (Indiana was not included) to determine whether, when, how and why they participate in pro bono services. More than 47,000 lawyers responded providing answers to the detailed questions.

“This is the most recent in a series of surveys to poll lawyers in every practice area, in every practice setting and of every age and experience level about their pro bono activity,” said George “Buck” Lewis, chair of the ABA standing committee on pro bono and public service. “It is influential in informing strategies to encourage pro bono work and to develop new pro bono opportunities with the goal of increasing access to the legal system.”

In the survey, 80.6 percent of the attorneys indicated they believe pro bono services are either somewhat or very important. But only 45 percent said they were either likely or very likely to offer free legal representation, and another 23 percent noted they were either unlikely or very unlikely to participate in pro bono work.

Attorneys were motivated to do pro bono by their desire to help people in need, ethical obligations, and professional duties. They were hindered from providing the service by lack of time, outside commitments to family and other personal obligations, and lack of experience in the practice areas needed by the pro bono clients.

Still, the study found the legal professional has a strong commitment to volunteering their services, with a full 81 percent having done pro bono work at some point in their careers.

Overall in 2016, attorneys averaged 36.9 hours of pro bono service, below the ABA’s aspirational goal of 50 hours per year. Just 20 percent of lawyers reached 50 or more hours in 2016, while 48 percent did no volunteer legal work.

Much of the pro bono work the attorneys did in 2016 was of limited scope representation. Specifically, 45.1 percent of the surveyed lawyers noted they had only provided limited scope representation that required an average 40.1 hours. Conversely, 28.7 percent only did full representation, averaging 81.8 hours.

The legal tasks volunteer lawyers preformed in 2016 covered a wide range. Of the pro bono work, 74.1 percent of the attorneys provided advice while 66.2 percent reviewed or drafted documents, and 63.7 percent met with the client.       

The ABA concluded that policy and program actions could be instituted to overcome the barriers to doing pro bono and expand the opportunities for attorneys.

Among the association’s recommendations for getting more lawyers to volunteer their services were offering more opportunities for attorneys to co-counsel; providing free or reduced-fee continuing legal education in exchange for pro bono work; cultivating channels for referrals through the attorneys’ personal and professional networks; and encouraging employers to allow the use of workday time and resources for pro bono activities.   

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