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More than Statistics: D.C. Bar Pro Bono Initiative

By District of Columbia Bar

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D.C. Chamber of Commerce: Volunteer attorneys meet one-on-one with clients at the CED Project’s Small Business Legal Clinic this month. The CED Project runs eleven Small Business Legal Clinics annually, where volunteer attorneys provide legal information to current and aspiring business owners who operate in economically disadvantaged areas or who have limited financial resources. Pictured with clients (front table) are Attorney Christine Corkran, an associate in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP; (back table) Attorney Chris L. Caldwell, and Thomas P. Conaghan, a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP.

Pro bono hours performed by attorneys at 61 D.C. law firms increased by 7.21% in 2013, according to the annual D.C. Bar Pro Bono Initiative report. Firms participating in the Pro Bono Initiative agree to an annual pro bono commitment of either 3% or 5% of total client billable hours, or an average of 60 or 100 hours for every lawyer in the firm. The Pro Bono Initiative began in 2001 and uses standards created by the Pro Bono Institute modeled on its Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®. Each year, participating firms report their results to the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program through a survey which is compiled into a report.

Pro Bono Attorney Hours:

The Pro Bono Initiative survey measures attorney pro bono hours and other factors.  Findings this year include:

  • The 61 reporting firms contributed a combined 880,145 pro bono hours with 10,020 full-time equivalent attorneys in their D.C. office – an average of 88 hours per attorney
  • 7 firms contributed 7% or more of their billable hours to pro bono work, more than double the average pledge of 3.4%.
  • 83% of the attorneys in the responding firms participated in pro bono work in 2013.

Management Practices:

The survey also tracks firm management practices regarding pro bono.  This year’s survey found:

  • 96.7% of firms credit non-partner attorneys’ pro bono hours toward billable hours requirements and bonuses.
  • 75% of firms have either a part-time or a full-time attorney managing the firm’s pro bono program.
  • 25% of firms set a minimum pro bono requirement for attorneys and 77% expect partners to perform pro bono service.

Need for Pro Bono Legal Services

People living in poverty not only are the least able to afford private counsel, they often are the most legally vulnerable and require enhanced services to address the many legal issues that they encounter merely to survive. According to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in the 2012 American Community Survey[1], an estimated 18.5% of the District’s population is living below the poverty line with children under the age of 18 making up 28%. The District’s poverty rate is significantly higher than the national average.

In 2013, more than 35,000 cases were filed in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the D.C. Superior Court[2]. Despite all of the resources provided by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program and other legal services organizations, only a small percentage of tenants attempting to defend against imminent eviction are represented by counsel. Historically[3], in Family Court, nearly 77% of plaintiffs and 38 percent of respondents proceed pro se in divorce, custody and miscellaneous cases, and 98 percent of respondents are pro se in child support cases.

Although the extensive network of legal services organizations stretches its resources to serve as many clients as possible, the District of Columbia relies on the pro bono commitment of its private bar to help fill the justice gap. While private practitioners contribute hundreds of thousands of hours annually to help low-income families avoid eviction, appeal denials of public benefits, assert their employment rights, and initiate consumer protection actions, it is likely that only small percent of the legal needs of the low-income community are being addressed.

The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program is continuously working to expand access to justice by recruiting, training and supporting more lawyers in private practice to perform pro bono service.

Full D.C. Bar Pro Bono Initiative Report

D.C. Bar News Story

Make a Commitment to Expand Access to Justice

For more information on how your firm can join the Pro Bono Initiative, please contact Shannon Redd at sredd@dcbar.org

Sources

[1]  U.S. Census Bureau in the 2012 American Community Survey

[2]  D.C. Superior Court Statistical Summary Report

[3]  DC Access to Justice Report