The ideal of “justice for all” is so inherent in our American system of government that it is included in our Pledge of Allegiance. As attorneys, we are officers of the court and part of the judicial system that must provide justice for all. Our status as lawyers comes with many privileges. We are allowed to police ourselves through the state bar. We are empowered to make a very good living practicing law. As part of that bargain, however, attorneys share the responsibility of making sure all people have access to justice. If the public begins to view our system as one in which only those who can afford an attorney can obtain justice, the system will be changed, and the privileges we have grown to enjoy will be stripped away.
And the numbers are not good. If you have read any legal publications lately, you have probably seen the statistics. There is little doubt that private attorneys are not meeting their obligation to perform pro bono legal services for people of limited means. The “justice gap” is not a myth; rather, it is a hard reality for many of our citizens. The Virginia Supreme Court has recognized this issue and has sounded the alarm by establishing the Access to Justice Commission.
As the hub for pro bono service in Central Virginia, the Greater Richmond Bar Foundation is committed to encouraging and facilitating Virginia’s lawyers in meeting their professional obligation to provide pro bono services. The Bar Foundation is committed to leading the private bar from the sidelines to the front lines in closing the justice gap. To that end, GRBF is proud to announce a new and improved Pro Bono Promise Project. The Pro Bono Promise emphasizes the five key elements to a successful pro bono program, essentially, a set of “best practices” for pro bono:
1. Clear Policies — By entering into the Pro Bono Promise, a law firm, legal department or solo practitioner agrees to adopt clear written policies that all attorneys are expected to provide pro bono services. Those policies must include a procedure for opening pro bono files and recording pro bono time separately from other activities. This allows attorneys to report back to the community, through the Bar Foundation, about the efforts of the private bar to close the justice gap.
2. A Common Definition of Pro Bono — Joining the Pro Bono Promise means adopting a definition of pro bono services as real legal work for real people of limited means, or for non-profits whose primary mission is to serve people of limited means. For years, lawyers have confused community service, bar activities and “free” legal work for people who could afford a lawyer as “pro bono.” This misconception is a major cause of the current justice gap.
3. A Clear Goal — The Pro Bono Promise asks for a commitment of 2% of an attorney or firm’s billable time to be dedicated to pro bono. For instance, an attorney billing 2,000 hours in a year should provide 40 hours of pro bono service. In addition, those who commit to the Pro Bono Promise will report their hours each year to the Bar Foundation confidentiality, so the Bar Foundation can help assist law firms, corporate legal departments, and solo practitioners in meeting their ethical obligation to do pro bono. Moreover, without the ability to measure our progress, we cannot demonstrate the work we are doing to eliminate the justice gap.
4. Support of Legal Aid — Those who commit to the Pro Bono Promise will also recognize the need to financially support our local legal aid organizations, who are on the front lines every day providing services to those of need.
5. Contact — Finally, a commitment to the pro bono promise comes with a commitment to identify a point of contact, who will work with the Bar Foundation to report pro bono success, and to receive pro bono news and guidance. The Bar Foundation is here to help, but without communication, it just will not work.
The Greater Richmond Bar Foundation is asking all lawyers in Central Virginia to commit to the Pro Bono Promise. By implementing these best practices and aspirational goals, we can begin to shrink the justice gap in our community and meet our ethical obligation to provide pro bono services to those in need.
For more information about making the Pro Bono Promise or joining the Pro Bono Promise Task Force, please contact the Ali Fannon (firstname.lastname@example.org or 780-2600) or Ben Pace (WPace@williamsmullen.com or 420-6932). The Bar Foundation’s goal will be to sign up as many firms, attorneys, and corporate legal departments as possible to make sure that our system continues to provide justice for all.