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The Heightened Importance of Pro Bono Work During a Pandemic


The following article was authored by firm attorney Brian M. Bentrup and was first published on the Chicago Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section website on January 18, 2021.

I was sworn in to the Illinois bar in 2015 and never did I anticipate devoting much time, if any, to pro bono work. The end goal for many law students is a high-paying job. A significant number of 3Ls want to pass the bar, join an Am Law 100 Firm and make six figures immediately as a first year associate. With a new bar admittee’s attention devoted to embarking on a lengthy, lucrative and rewarding career, aspirational goals fall by the wayside.

Every law student in Illinois must take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) as a prerequisite to admission to the state’s bar. Accordingly, Illinois law students must be aware of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Rules (“Model Rules”) and the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct of 2010 (“Illinois Rules”). ABA Model Rule 6.1 states that every lawyer has a “professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”[1] The Illinois Rules do not impose a similar requirement, but the Preamble states that while the Illinois Rules do not have a counterpart to ABA Model Rule 6.1 because “the rationale is that this responsibility is not appropriate for disciplinary rules because it is not possible to articulate an appropriate disciplinary standard regarding pro bono and public service.”[2]

While the Illinois Rules do not incorporate the aspirational goals of pro bono work as in Model Rules, the Preamble states that the absence of a counterpart to Model Rule 6.1 “should not be interpreted as limiting the responsibility of lawyers to render uncompensated service in the public interest.”[3] The Illinois Rules therefore actively promote, but do not require, pro bono work. This promotion is especially critical in Chicago where there are many communities and individuals underserved by the legal profession, a city in or around which the overwhelming majority of attorneys in Illinois practice.

There is no shortage of anecdotal or empirical evidence. Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS) estimates that 1 in 4 Chicago families qualify for legal aid, but less than half of those families receive it. This problem is exacerbated by the current pandemic, which has disproportionately affected black and brown communities. It is more important now than ever that those with the time and ability devote them to those in need.

There are myriad societal and personal benefits with legal volunteering. From a societal perspective, access to legal services is extended to those for whom such services would otherwise available. This promotes faith and confidence in the inclusiveness, diversity, and equitability of the legal profession. It also fosters a feeling of togetherness and unity within the community because there’s a sense of cohesiveness in the path to progress.

If altruism isn’t a motivation, personal growth and professional development, particularly for young attorneys, should move the needle. For young attorneys lacking experience, it is vital to develop and refine important skills.  For litigators, there are three benefits: “(1) pro bono work can provide early opportunities for substantial and meaningful direct interaction with clients; (2) it often offers young litigators the opportunity to develop skills through experiences that simply would not be available to them from paying work; and (3) it can provide experience in a far wider range of subject matters than the standard commercial litigation fare.”[4]

While this article was written with litigators in mind, the same principles apply for transactional attorneys. It provides transactional attorneys with meaningful contacts with clients in a less-pressure filled environment and allows them to work through novel issues and problems in situations where they may otherwise defer to a lead or supervising attorney. Finally, a pro bono opportunity may not fit neatly into one’s preferred practice area, exposing the transactional attorney to a new substantive area or new issue within his or her current practice area.

With so many people throughout the city, state and country losing their jobs, working fewer hours, or accepting reduced hours or wages, access to legal services is now more important than never. This is especially true when a legal claim may arise out of the change in their employment situation. The legal profession bestows many perks and benefits upon its practitioners. It helps achieve, but does not guarantee, financial security, affording attorneys more opportunities to use their toolbox for those in need. It is essential that now more than ever, attorneys use their education, expertise, knowledge, and experience to help others. Quite simply, it is a numbers game. While new attorneys are sworn in biannually and other attorneys retire, the number of attorneys admitted to the bar remains relatively fixed whereas the number of those needed low-cost or free legal services has risen substantially. And even though many non-essential court functions and services have been postponed, the need for those services does not go away altogether.

This purpose of this article is to promote pro bono work although not to promote a particular legal aid organization.  I am writing anecdotally from personal experiences. I completed several pro bono guardian ad litem (GAL) appointments through CVLS in order to be added to the approved GAL list for Cook County. Being on the approved Cook County GAL list requires me to complete one pro bono GAL appointment a year, but I’ve committed myself to an additional 1-2 yearly appointments. I’ve also committed to two client consultations through Administer Justice monthly. I’ve attended informational sessions regarding specifically senior citizens. There is always a new opportunity and every legal aid organization with which I have worked has already asked for more volunteers, more hours, and more help.

Nevertheless, despite these efforts, I have failed. I estimate that these commitments likely only amount to 35-40 hours a year. I fall, at best, 10 hours short of the aspirations of ABA Model Rule 6.1. The need is certainly there and many attorneys have seen decreased workloads as a result of the pandemic, and I am no exception. Now more than ever is time to practice what I preach, and I strongly encourage anyone reading this to commit to some pro bono work, even if it does not result in 50 hours.

[1] American Bar Association Model Rules, Model Rule 6.1, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/probono_public_service/policy/aba_model_rule_6_1/ (last visited Dec. 15, 2020).

[2] Supreme Court of Illinois, Article VIII. Illinois Rules of Professional. Conduct, http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/SupremeCourt/Rules/Art_VIII/ArtVIII_NEW.htm (last visited Dec. 15, 2020).

[3] Id.

[4] Murray, B. J. M. (2009). The Importance of Pro Bono Work in Professional Development. The Journal of Trial Practice Committee, 23(3), 1, 17–19. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/real-estate-condemnation-trust/articles/2011/042011-pro-bono-professional-development/

By MacDonald, Lee & Senechalle, Ltd. |

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