By Margaret Benson
Chicago Volunteer Legal Services
In last month's Chicago Lawyer Above & Beyond column, Latonia Haney Keith discussed an idea being bandied about the legal community — to allow attorneys to apply pro bono time toward Continuing Legal Education requirements. Currently, seven states follow this concept in some form. Should Illinois be No. 8?
Illinois' Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism is meeting with groups of people to gather information and thoughts on this proposal. In her column, Latonia wrote about two stakeholders possessing contrary views of the value of counting pro bono for CLE. Maria Minor, professional development and pro bono manager at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, said she thinks it would encourage more attorneys to contribute their time and talents, while Greg McConnell, pro bono counsel at Winston & Strawn, said he believes it devalues the pro bono experience.
At the end of her column, Latonia admitted that she didn't know yet if she supported the idea, although, she thought that " … given the extent of our crisis, even if the increase in participation (of attorneys doing pro bono) is minimal, it is hard to argue that it wouldn't be worthwhile."
Recently, the commission met with legal service and pro bono providers and funders. At the beginning of the meeting, Jayne Reardon, the commission's executive director, said the meeting was not to discuss details. Instead, the commission was interested in hearing everyone's thoughts on the general concept. The problem is, however, that the devil is in those details.
How would the rule be written and implemented?
Would the rule change benefit low-income clients by introducing a large group of attorneys to pro bono, or would it create an administrative burden and serve as a way for cynical attorneys to scam the system?
Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, which funds many of Chicago's pro bono programs, began his remarks by distinguishing this idea from mandatory pro bono, which the CBF opposes. Continuing, he remarked that while it is well settled that pro bono is an important component of professional development and provides tangible professional benefits, the value of counting pro bono hours to satisfy CLE requirements (particularly ethics requirements), cannot be determined without specifics. While exchanging CLE credit for pro bono hours would not mandate anything, and, in fact, could be a good incentive to volunteer, he raised key practical questions. How can the rule be defined so that the focus stays on pro bono? How can it be implemented to prevent already overstretched pro bono and legal aid providers from an additional administrative burden?
Alicia Aiken said her initial response to the proposal was fear. Training director at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, she worries that the administrative burden would far outweigh the potential help to the clients her organization serves through their various pro bono programs.
Barry Taylor, legal advocacy director at Equip for Equality, said while he really could not judge its value without knowing how it would work, he saw positive potential for his pro bono programs.
Several members of the group pointed out that all pro bono is not equal — some pro bono work has a higher value to the client community.
For instance, a simple intake clinic where attorneys conduct cursory client interviews and then refer the clients somewhere else does not provide significant value. Not only can that work be performed by nonattorneys, it doesn't help a client who needs representation in court or seeks legal advice.
Should all pro bono count for CLE — even pro bono that does not directly benefit low-income people? Should the value of the pro bono be measured? Who gets to measure?
One donor, however, offered a reason why this proposal may be beneficial to donors. Ruth Ann Schmitt, executive director of the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, said if attorneys were able to apply pro bono to meet their CLE requirements, the information they provide when reporting their hours would help funders quantify and qualify additional pro bono programs.
Several providers said they feared that too many attorneys would cynically take on minimal pro bono simply to get out of their CLE requirements.
Everyone in the room knew of attorneys who work or carry on conversations while CLE plays through their earphones. They agreed that the proposal would better serve the low-income community and the commission's underlying purpose if it were used as a reward for attorneys who do pro bono, rather than an incentive to get them to do it.
But how does one create a reward without it also being an incentive?
So, where do I come out on this proposal? Like Latonia, I am a definite I don't know. However, also like Latonia, I believe that this is a concept that is definitely worth discussing. If the devil is in the details, it's time to grapple with Satan.