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Can We Lawyers Please Stop Patting Ourselves on The Back?

by Carolyn Elefant on August 7, 2005 · 8 comments

in Legal Profession Trends, Pro Bono

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What if you went to a client and boasted that in the past year, you spent 300 hours working on his case?  The client would probably respond, “So what, what kind of results did you get me?”  Yet apparently, the American Bar Association (whose efforts at blogging the ABA annual meeting are a little bit pathetic) believes that this type of hourly standard is the best way to measure lawyers’ pro bono activities.  At least, that’s the impression I gathered when I read this ABA Press Release (July 28, 2005)  boasting that 66 percent of lawyers gave away free legal assistance to people of limited means, volunteering an average of 39 hours a year.  Well, that’s alot of hours, but it tells me nothing worth celebrating.  Because in spite of all that time (20,592,000 hours, assuming 66 percent of 800,000 lawyers performing 39 hours a year), there’s still a substantially unmet need for legal services.

So just like a client, what I want to know is how are those 20 million
hours being spent?  How many cases were closed out, how many indigents
were saved from eviction or wrongful conviction?  How many wives were
granted custody of their kids and a divorce from an abusive spouse?
How many poor children were removed from homes of drug addicted parents
and placed in a happier foster care environment?  And how many more
people are out there who claim that they need a lawyer but can’t afford
one?

The bar tells me that lawyers are doing 20 million hours a year of pro
bono.  So what?  If there’s still a problem with access to justice,
then 20 million hours isn’t nearly enough time or the pro bono that’s
being done simply isn’t efficient or effective enough.  In fact, it’s embarrassing to me that lawyers can do 20 million hours of pro bono work and apparently not have made a dent in the problem of helping citizens gain access to the legal system.  The 20 million hours doesn’t make us look good – it makes us look pretty darn ineffective.  So, ABA, if you are listening to me (apparently not, because no one in the ABA reads blogs), please – don’t issue a press release about lawyers’ pro bono work unless you can back up that work with results.

  • Mike Adams

    Bravo! Excellent point. More evidence of how single-minded our profession can be about billable hours. Could you imagine a group of surgeons indicating that they gave away 20 million hours per year of free surgery without any indication of the effectiveness of their services?

  • Mike Adams

    Bravo! Excellent point. More evidence of how single-minded our profession can be about billable hours. Could you imagine a group of surgeons indicating that they gave away 20 million hours per year of free surgery without any indication of the effectiveness of their services?

  • anon

    Read Posner’s book, please. Law is not a cartel anymore. That’s why pro bono is outdated (not a profession of privileged “gentlemen” anymore; there is competition in the market) and the billable hour system was required (because of teacher’s pets). Surgeons don’t do pro bono (or there is not a profession-wide statement that every doctor owes that) because they still have a strong cartel, but they’re getting like lawyers too. See hospitals advertising on billboards.

  • anon

    Read Posner’s book, please. Law is not a cartel anymore. That’s why pro bono is outdated (not a profession of privileged “gentlemen” anymore; there is competition in the market) and the billable hour system was required (because of teacher’s pets). Surgeons don’t do pro bono (or there is not a profession-wide statement that every doctor owes that) because they still have a strong cartel, but they’re getting like lawyers too. See hospitals advertising on billboards.

  • Cindy Zatzman

    I loved the points. Last year I actually gave away more hours in pro bono services than I billed to paying clients. It makes a difference. In fact, on the conclusion of one of those cases, I went out with my client to her favorite “hang out” — and heard a great deal about what the layman thinks about our profession, and WHY they think what they do. As to the medical profession not serving the poor — look around. Hospitals cannot turn away the indigent in need of emergency service; a lawyer can send a woman home to get beaten to death by an abusive spouse. Makes you stop and think.

  • Cindy Zatzman

    I loved the points. Last year I actually gave away more hours in pro bono services than I billed to paying clients. It makes a difference. In fact, on the conclusion of one of those cases, I went out with my client to her favorite “hang out” — and heard a great deal about what the layman thinks about our profession, and WHY they think what they do. As to the medical profession not serving the poor — look around. Hospitals cannot turn away the indigent in need of emergency service; a lawyer can send a woman home to get beaten to death by an abusive spouse. Makes you stop and think.

  • Elder M R K Tuck

    I must agree with Ms. Elefant. Clocked our hours mean nothing without actual results. Legal “advice” versus legal “assistance” is the issue. Thank you ABA for the stats, but a more explicit description of services renedered might qualify your expressed efforts. Is free effective; for the greater, or to make the good look greater? Free surgery – thanks, but no thanks! However, effective advisement would make a difference even in the medical field.

  • Elder M R K Tuck

    I must agree with Ms. Elefant. Clocked our hours mean nothing without actual results. Legal “advice” versus legal “assistance” is the issue. Thank you ABA for the stats, but a more explicit description of services renedered might qualify your expressed efforts. Is free effective; for the greater, or to make the good look greater? Free surgery – thanks, but no thanks! However, effective advisement would make a difference even in the medical field.

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