Solos, Small Firms: Be Counted During Pro Bono Week
By Andrea Ferster
On October 20 to 26, communities across the country will be marking National Pro Bono Week to celebrate and recognize pro bono activities.
Often reports on pro bonoservice focus on the efforts of our largest law firms whose involvement tends to be more public and most easily surveyed. But thousands of individual attorneys, including solo practitioners like me, small firm lawyers, or lawyers who are in transition (referred to collectively as “unaffiliated lawyers”), also are actively engaged in pro bonowork in our community. Experienced solo and small firm practitioners staff many of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s clinics, such as the Bankruptcy Clinic, Small Business Clinic, and Health Care Access Project. Our walk–in Advice and Referral Clinic, Immigration Legal Advice Clinic, Probate Resource Center, and Wills Clinic also rely heavily on the expertise of solo and small firm practitioners. And many unaffiliated lawyers provide pro bono service through their own contacts by taking on matters referred through their faith communities, schools, or community–based nonprofit organizations.
For many lawyers, working with an established legal services provider that offers case screening, training, practice mentors, supervision, and other support to lawyer volunteers is critical. However, solo and small firm attorneys often have fewer opportunities to participate in these pro bono activities than do their peers in large firms or in government. Many providers simply do not have the resources to coordinate hundreds of volunteers.
Fortunately, there are a number of high–quality opportunities available to unaffiliated lawyers to do pro bonowork in such a supportive environment. One such program is the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project (DCVLP), established in 2008 to address the urgent need for more pro bono family law lawyers by tapping into an unused resource—lawyers who have left full–time legal practice, many of them to raise families. DCVLP attorneys provide pro bono representation in family law cases, including civil protection orders, divorce, and custody proceedings. Pro bonolawyers receive support from DCVLP in undertaking these cases, including training, malpractice coverage, conference space, secretarial services, and access to an extensive legal pleadings library. A DCVLP staff attorney enters an appearance as counsel in every case and oversees each matter, including reviewing volunteers’ case preparation and attending court with volunteers.
Unaffiliated lawyers also can volunteer with The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which staffs several of its intake sites with unaffiliated lawyers, and provides them with training, malpractice insurance, and backup support. Many volunteer bar associations sponsor opportunities for their members to engage in pro bonoservice as well.
D.C. government lawyers now have an established affiliate entity to sponsor their pro bonoservice, thanks to the efforts of Dave Zvenyach, general counsel for the D.C. Council (and chair–elect of the D.C. Bar’s Sections Council).
With the strong support of D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson, the D.C. Council passed in June Resolution 20-140, establishing the Pro Bono Legal Volunteer Program for the Council of the District of Columbia, modeled after the highly successful pro bono program for attorneys with the federal government. The program is open to all D.C. Council employees who are licensed to practice law, and the resolution authorizes them to take up to 20 hours of administrative leave per calendar year to engage in pro bono service. In addition, the resolution authorizes the coordination of pro bono opportunities with other D.C. offices and agencies.
The D.C. Bar’s Pro Bono Committee recently formed a Working Group on Unaffiliated Lawyers to look at new ways to increase and enhance opportunities for this group of lawyers to participate in the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s clinics and resource centers.
It is important that solo and unaffiliated attorneys take the initiative to stand up and be counted for their pro bono service, which might otherwise go unrecognized. One way to do this is through the D.C. Courts’ Capital Pro Bono Honor Roll. Bar members and others authorized to perform pro bono work in the District who self–report that they completed at least 50 hours of pro bono service over the course of the last calendar year are listed on the honor roll. In 2012 almost 4,100 attorneys, including scores of solo practitioners, government lawyers, and attorneys with public interest organizations, were listed on the honor roll.
In addition, the D.C. Bar honors law firms that perform substantial pro bono work with a special award at the Celebration of Leadership: The D.C. Bar Awards Dinner and Annual Meeting. The Bar is actively seeking nominations from firms of all sizes for this prestigious award.
No time for pro bono work? No problem. Rule 6.1 of the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct also recognizes that when personal pro bonorepresentation is not feasible, a lawyer may discharge this responsibility by providing financial support to organizations that provide legal representation to those unable to obtain counsel. Resolutions passed by the Judicial Conferences of the District of Columbia and the D.C. Circuit suggest that lawyers contribute the lesser of $750 or 1 percent of earned income to a legal assistance organization that serves the economically disadvantaged.
One way to do this is by participating in the D.C. Access to Justice Commission’s Raising the Bar in D.C. campaign, which provides law firms and lawyers an even giving field. Participants can give in a manner proportionate to their means by making a benchmark contribution, from .075 percent (Silver), to .09 percent (Gold), to .11 percent (Platinum) of their gross D.C. office revenues. Thus, for every $100,000 in gross revenue, a small firm or solo lawyer would only need to contribute $110 to qualify for Platinum status (and only $75 for Silver). All campaign participants are acknowledged and honored equally at the Access to Justice Commission’s annual event and are listed on the commission’s Web site.
The Go Casual for Justice campaign, which supports the D.C. Bar Foundation’s legal services grants, training, and poverty lawyer loan repayment programs, is also a level giving field. This citywide jeans–for–a–day event is part of the D.C. Pro Bono Week celebration, coordinated by the Washington Council of Lawyers. Any lawyer or staff person in a participating law firm can pledge to donate $5 (or more) and sport denim for the day. The Bar Foundation awards grants to legal services organizations that provide free civil legal services to low–income and underserved people in the District. Unaffiliated attorneys are encouraged to participate individually.
And, of course, all D.C. Bar members can give to the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program by including a voluntary contribution in your annual D.C. law license renewal statement, by making a secure contribution any time online at www.dcbar.org/
probono, or by sponsoring the Presidents’ Reception, part of Bar’s Celebration of Leadership. The D.C. Bar is prohibited by longstanding member referendum from using dues funds to support our legal services provider community or our Pro Bono Program, so making a financial contribution directly to the program is critically important. Your contribution to the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program and to numerous other legal services providers counts toward your Raising the Bar contribution.
However you choose to contribute, stand up and be counted!
Reach Andrea Ferster at email@example.com.
 D.C. Bar Pro Bono Initiative Report, available at www.dcbar.org/for_lawyers/pro_bono/resources/report.cfm.
 To volunteer, visit The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless’ Web site at www.legalclinic.org/volunteers/laprogram.asp.
 Full text of Resolution 20–140 is available at http://bit.ly/17JURSC.
 Pro Bono Honor Roll: Open Letter to D.C. Bar Membership From Chief Judge Washington and Chief Judge Satterfield, available at www.dcappeals.gov/internet/about/
 For more information on the Go Casual for Justice campaign, visit www.dcbarfoundation.org/supporting-justice/special-events/go-casual-for-justice.