“Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.” – The American Bar Association
October is Pro Bono Month at the BBA and across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – a time for us to recognize and celebrate meaningful pro bono contributions to the legal community and learn more about how else we as attorneys can make a positive difference.
With the pending release of the report from the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, this month takes on a deeper meaning. Let me share one figure from the Task Force’s report with you: the estimated market value of time donated by attorneys through pro bono work with just four Boston-area legal services providers in 2013 was $17.6 million, representing the value of over 82,000 hours contributed.
This is a staggering number, and all the people behind that number deserve our wholehearted respect and applause. In Massachusetts, lawyers are expected by the Board of Bar Overseers to donate at least 25 hours per year of their time to pro bono legal services – and many attorneys go above and beyond this. You may recall Law Day Dinner this past year, when Mayor Marty Walsh asked the crowd of 1,300 attorneys and other representatives from the legal community how many would be involved in a pro bono project in the coming year; almost everybody raised their hands. As Mayor Walsh succinctly put it, “Boston’s legal community has an established tradition – and an active culture – of pro bono legal work.”
Many others show their commitment to the cause by answering the call to donate 1% of their incomes to legal aid and similar causes. Those who pledge to the Boston Bar Foundation, for example, are supporting both legal services organizations and pro bono initiatives, since the Foundation provides grants to legal services and community organizations as well as funding for pro bono initiatives of the Association.
Even as we celebrate and laud the generous donations of time and resources made by members of the private bar, we must be aware that their contributions alone can never meet the entire need. Pro bono work by the private bar provides crucial support to legal services organizations, and, judging by the numbers, attorneys are actively engaged in this area. Yet, with the rising number of income-qualifying individuals that legal services organizations are forced to turn away every year, there is no way the private bar alone can entirely bridge the gap between those who need legal aid and those who receive it.
In short, there is still much more work to be done. This is why we are looking forward to the full report of the Task Force to recommend steps not only to fund legal services organizations, but to create more opportunities for the private bar to help address the unmet need. The Legislature has been instrumental in this effort thus far. We appreciate their support of this cause and look forward to continuing to partner with them in the future as we work to secure legal assistance for all who need it.
If you want to get more involved in pro bono work, there are numerous ways to do so. The website at www.massprobono.org is a great resource for finding pro bono opportunities across the state. Many cases require special training, which is why the BBA partners with community legal services organizations every year to create a full slate of pro bono events and training sessions every October. You can find that calendar here.
I would urge you to consider getting involved, or, if you are involved already, increasing that involvement and encouraging other attorneys to join you in taking pro bono cases and volunteering time and expertise. There is still much work to be done. I am confident that if we continue to give as generously as we have in the past, if we continue to show our commitment to advancing access to justice, and if we continue to work alongside our partners across the legal community and in the government to implement the Task Force’s forthcoming recommendations, we will make even greater strides in meeting the need for legal assistance in our state.