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Pro Bono: Do We Mean What We say?

by Gerald A. McHugh

The recent Chancellorís Task Force on Pro Bono gathered a great deal of useful information in its report and it should be commended for its work. Out of all the reportís insights and very detailed recommendations for improvement, there is one baseline fact that stands out: Over the past 10 years, law firm profits are up, while pro bono service is down.

This particular finding is both simple and profound. It is simple to the extent that such a relationship may be somewhat obvious: The more time firms spend on fee-paying work, the less time is available for community service. The same finding is profound in that it strikes at the very core of the issue. Against a backdrop of very sophisticated analysis of the practice of law in Philadelphia, the report forces us to confront a fundamental question: Do we mean what we say about the importance of pro bono service?

As a society, and as lawyers, we profess to support the ideal of equal justice. As a profession, we maintain that we serve a higher purpose than merely generating profits. It is on that score, however, that we are most open to challenge because, on many levels, our professionalism would appear to be increasingly at risk because of our business concern with bottom-line profitability. Based on the evidence, not just in Philadelphia but across the country, our actions suggest that we are less committed to the cause of equal justice than we profess to be.

A great deal has been made about obstacles to pro bono participation. One practical obstacle is the very real burden of carrying litigation costs for smaller firms and solo practitioners. Many of the other perceived obstacles, however, sound more like excuses than actual barriers. For instance, can any lawyer who has practiced in Philadelphia for even a brief period of time be unaware of the wealth of opportunities for pro bono service? If paging through the list of agencies at the front of The Legal Directory does not provide enough ideas, all one needs to do is access the Bar Associationís online Pro Bono Corner, or connect to the VIP Web site, which lists virtually every public interest organization in the city. Or consider the issue of technical support. While some suggest that state-of-the-art data banks are a prerequisite for effective representation, on the front lines of the legal services and public interest community, many lawyers handle major litigation every day without so much as a secretary or support staff. Of course, there is also the pressure of billable hours. But arenít we usually able to find time in our lives for what we believe to be important?

In the final analysis, it is a matter of values. Pro bono means commitment and commitment means sacrifice. That sacrifice might consist of a reduction in year-end profits. It might consist of working nights and weekends to make up for lost billable hours. In some cases, it might even mean providing hours of service for what seems like little appreciation on the part of a client, who is too preoccupied by the daily stresses that accompany a life of poverty to express appropriate thanks. When all is said and done, we are either committed to making the ideal of equal access to justice a reality, or we are not.

On the subject of commitment, the most important recommendation of the Chancellorís task force is the need for the leaders and senior members of the legal profession to set the standard. There is no lack of opportunity to serve. There is no practical impediment that cannot be overcome with sufficient effort. There is nothing ultimately lacking except our commitment to the cause. And so, the real question that is posed to us by the Chancellorís Task Force is: Do we mean what we say?

Gerald A. McHugh Jr., a partner at Litvin, Blumberg, Matusow & Young, is president of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation.

Copyright 2002, Philadelphia Bar Association. Used with permission.