Pro Bono Legal Services Have Increased Dramatically, But Can't Keep Pace with Need

Legal problems up, government aid down, 80 percent of poor seeking civil legal assistance are turned away

Release Date: December 8, 2009 This content is archived.


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 services.

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 Law.

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 the poor.

"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 justice."

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 available.

"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 says.

"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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