Thursday, May 22, 2014
Should Lawyers be Required to Provide Pro Bono Services?
In a word, the answer is" yes." "Much is expected from those to whom much has been given." Lawyers, like doctors and other professionals, have been given much. They have had access to education. They have specialized knowledge. And although lawyers, like doctors, have worked hard to get through school and to practice in their respective fields, they also have the ability to earn much by virtue of their education.
The average attorney, if he or she is charging by the hour, now charges over $250.00 per hour. Most attorneys work a great deal of hours over the course of any given week. Attorneys generally work longer than an eight hour day. Some of that time is billable, meaning the attorney is able to charge their client for that time. Some is not. Most law firms have a billable hour requirement. Many attorneys in larger firms must bill 2000 hours per year. We can all do the math. It adds up to a lot over money over time.
I believe that attorneys are justified in requesting their fees. They work hard, they have specialized knowledge, and not all of their work is pleasant. A court trial is just short of a civilized form of war. Lawyers, like doctors also have high student loans and large overhead costs for their offices. It costs over $100,000.00 to go through three years of law school for tuition, books and living expenses. And law school is grueling. The smart and the strong survive.
However, it is true that in the United States, the poor, even the middle class, have little or no access to legal help when it is needed. Often by the time help is needed, the situation is dire and there is no money available to pay an attorney. Often times, injustice is tolerated in our society because we just accept that this is acceptable. It is not acceptable. We only need to take a tour of any county jail to see that in the criminal justice system, those with money manage to stay out of jail, those people without it end up in jail. Some of this is ameliorated by "free" attorney services provided by local counties. In reality, the county jails remain overcrowded with the "have-nots." More, much more help is needed.
Likewise, many civil injustices go unprosecuted. It costs over $100,000 to get to trial in the average civil litigation matter these days. Most people cannot afford to have their wrongs addressed. Some take out loans against their real property to try to fund legal work. Some lose their homes, which represents the average person's life savings.
So, a crisis exists within the legal system. It will take more than one change to repair the system, asking that attorneys give of their time is as much a moral issue as it is a societal one.
I am not advocating that attorneys be necessarily mandated by law to provide pro-bono services. Professional associations can provide access to such attorneys and these attorneys can perhaps receive a tax benefit or be able to write -off some portion of their student loan debt in exchange. This would ease the burden for both the attorney and for society. Some such programs are already in place to ease student loan burdens for those who work in non-profit organizations for a period of time. Thus, precedent exists. It is merely a matter of providing the mechanism.