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
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.