04/11/2011 10:36:00 PM EST
The Justice Gap: Mandatory Pro Bono
In 2006, the state Supreme Court of Mississippi established a Mississippi Access to Justice Commission to investigate and recommend ways to address the "justice gap" in Mississippi. The Commission held hearings on the unmet needs of low-income citizens of Mississippi, and the resulting 2010 report included dire findings. The report called Mississippi "the nation's poorest state," with the largest number of people - half a million - living at or below the poverty line. Overall funding for legal services was equally dismal: just $11.18 per poor person, ranking 49th in the nation. Where two current legal services offices handled 15,000 cases in 2007, estimates put client need at well over 250,000 cases. Attorneys, clients, law students, and judges all testified as to both the indispensible nature of the services rendered, and the total inadequacy of the system to meet current need. Simply by way of example, attorney Susan Smith testified, "The Child Support Division of the Department of Human Services has 7644 open cases in Bolivar County and another 12,400 in Washington County. There is only one attorney serving this need."
The hearing's primary recommendation was to increase pro bono. The report urged the Mississippi bar to increase Pro Bono Legal Services through:
- a much better organized and coordinated pro bono response that becomes an integral part of the Mississippi Bar's culture.
- better packaging of pro bono opportunities, with support that includes manuals and standard forms.
- a broader mix of pro bono -offerings to include matters other than family law.
- tax breaks for attorneys that provide pro bono legal services.
- trained pro bono clerical staff in law firms that generate pleadings with attorney supervision.
- a mechanism that enables attorneys to receive credit for handling pro bono cases that do not meet LSC income.
The Mississippi Supreme Court did the report one better. Following the hearings, the Mississippi Supreme Court proposed to change its Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct: changing its Rule 6.1 from "Voluntary Pro Bono Public Service" to "Mandatory Pro Bono Public Service." The proposed rule required every attorney to render 20 hours of pro bono service per year or to pay a fee of $500 to the state bar for the provision of legal services. The judiciary, government lawyers, and those already working for Legal Services were exempt.
The response was overwhelmingly negative. The change made headlines, rekindling the debate over mandatory pro bono in the legal profession. Within a few weeks, the proposed rule garnered 64 comment letters, the vast majority of which were against the change. Even those who supported pro bono, or did a large amount themselves, felt strongly against mandatory pro bono requirements. As one commenter on a popular Mississippi legal blog summed up, "I believe in doing pro bono work, and routinely accept cases from MVLP. I do this because I want to help those less fortunate and I think it's important to give back to the community. That being said, I'll be damned if I am going to be forced into doing pro bono work."
Over the next few posts I'll address the justice gap and the idea that mandatory pro bono might be one way to fill it.
Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School. BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.
 Mississippi Access to Justice Commission, Report of Public Hearings on the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Mississippians, available at http://www.mssc.state.ms.us/reports/NewATJ0Report2.pdf.
 Id. at 37-38.
 Id. at 15.
 Id. at 39.
 Proposed Amendment, Rule 6.1, Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct (Aug. 6, 2010), http://www.mssc.state.ms.us/rules/rulesforcomment/2010/RPC6.1.pdf.
 Lawyers May Have to Provide Free Aid to Poor, Clarion-Ledger (Miss.), Sept. 19, 2010; Mississippi Weighs Mandatory Pro Bono, to Lawyers' Dismay, ABA Journal, Sept. 20, 2010, available at http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/mississippi_weighs_mandatory_pro_bono_to_lawyers_dismay/.
 Lawyers May Have to Provide Free Aid to Poor, supra note 7.
 Comment by Curt Crowley, August 31, 2010 7:09 PM, on Philip Thomas, "Mandatory Pro Bono Coming to Mississippi?," MS Litigation Review and Commentary, http://www.mslitigationreview.com/2010/08/articles/general-1/mandatory-pro-bono-coming-to-mississippi/#comments.