BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A multidisciplinary investigation of the
evolving role of pro bono legal services in the United
States demonstrates that available private and public resources do
not meet the legal needs of Americans of limited means.
The authors say that even though it has increased significantly,
pro bono work is insufficient to address the many social and
legal problems confronted by the poor and they call for more
government assistance and better coordination of available
The analysis is published in "Private Lawyers and the Public
Interest: The Evolving Role of Pro Bono in the Legal
Profession" (2009, Oxford University Press), a collection of
original essays by leading and emerging scholars in the field
edited by legal experts at the University at Buffalo.
The book, which examines the history, conditions, organization
and strategies of pro bono lawyering, developed out of a
2008 conference at UB's Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy.
The conference was organized by the book's editors: Robert
Granfield, PhD, professor and chair of the UB Department of
Sociology, and Lynn Mather, PhD, professor of law and political
science at UB and currently visiting scholar at the UCLA School of
Granfield says that the good news is that private attorneys have
attempted to step into the breach and address the legal needs of
the poor. The bad news is that the breach has widened, the need is
growing rapidly and publicly funded assistance has decreased.
"Today," Granfield says, "pro bono accounts for roughly
one-third of all civil legal assistance for those of limited means
and it is increasing internationally as well.
"The amount of pro bono legal work is up substantially in
the U.S., especially in large law firms across the country," he
says, "and in fact has increased 10 percent since 2004, with 73
percent of lawyers polled by the American Bar Association (ABA)
saying they provide some pro bono work."
But, as Mather points out, "Pro bono activity is unevenly
distributed throughout the profession. Only 27 percent of the
attorneys in an ABA survey provided the 50 hours of legal services
encouraged by the association."
"Unfortunately," says Granfield, "the increase in pro
bono work has been accompanied by -- in fact, it was fueled by
-- a dramatic reduction in government funding for legal services to
"That, coupled with the restrictions imposed on legal services
lawyers, who are limited in the strategies they can use for clients
in civil cases, for instance," he says, "poses very serious
problems for individuals of limited means who seek access to
Mather says, "This occurs at the same time as we are seeing a
major increase in the number of people facing problems with housing
and foreclosure, unemployment, immigration issues, disability and
health care and family stress. There just is not enough help
"In fact," she says, "the Legal Services Corporation, the single
largest provider of civil legal aid for the poor in the nation,
recently reported that half of those seeking legal help for such
reasons are turned away because of lack of resources. Studies from
individual states report that more than 80 percent of those with
legal needs are unable to secure a lawyer."
Granfield and Mather agree that more pro bono work is
needed, but say its expansion raises some serious questions,
notably, what does pro bono accomplish and for whose benefit
is it being done?
"The data indicates that pro bono work certainly serves
the economic interests of the legal profession itself as well as
the needs of the client," Granfield says.
"Contrary to our assumptions -- and often their own -- attorneys
don't really do it for 'nothing,'" he says.
Granfield points out, that pro bono work helps firms
recruit lawyers, for instance.
"It promotes good public relations, increases a firm's prestige
ranking with the legal media and helps drum up paying business. It
also gives attorneys experience on a wide range of cases in which
they otherwise might not be involved," he says.
"But as Deborah Rohde of the Stanford University Law School
points out in our book," he says, "if the principle benefit of
pro bono work is to enhance the legal profession's bottom
line, then its potential to improve people's lives is limited," he
"While the recession has led some large firms to increase their
pro bono hours -- simply to keep their young associates
occupied -- that is not a stable base with which to provide access
to justice for the poor," Mather says.
"More government support and better coordination of legal
services is needed," she says, "because pro bono work by
private lawyers does not begin to cover the range of civil legal
needs presented by American faced with financial constraints."
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