Lawyers have worried for decades that they and their colleagues are failing millions of people who can't afford the representation they need. And recession-driven cuts at law firms seemed likely to make things worse.
But pro bono directors at legal nonprofits in California are seeing the opposite trend. And it's more significant than the uptick that occurred when the recession hit and jobless lawyers started volunteering
More law firms are setting up pro bono programs. Some, such as Irell & Manella, are making public service a requirement for new lawyers, notes David Daniels, pro bono director at Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles. He says that after a lull in 2009 and 2010, firms now are incorporating even more pro bono work into their business strategies.
Simultaneously, nonprofits are getting smarter about how they seek and use lawyers' time, says Diego Cartagena, pro bono coordinator at Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles. Agencies are repackaging cases into bite-size pieces. They're collaborating with firms and in-house legal teams on training. And they're organizing traveling clinics to take volunteers where the need is greatest, including senior centers in the suburbs and community centers in the poorest rural areas of the Central Valley.
Both the American Bar Association and California's State Bar encourage their members to volunteer at least 50 hours a year. A new ABA poll found that in 2011 the recession had led 20 percent of the responding attorneys to do more pro bono work, while only 13 percent did less. A State Bar survey found that in the same year, 30 percent of California lawyers logged 51 or more pro bono hours. And a proposal is afoot to require pro bono work of all new members.
David A. Lash, managing counsel for pro bono services at O'Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles and a consultant on the ABA report, lauds volunteering as a tool for training and recruiting. But a more emotional connection may be driving the increase. "There were so many people injured and affected by this last economic crisis," Daniels says, "that it is simply impossible to overlook the need."