Thursday, July 19, 2007
Bill Provision Urges Lawyers to Donate Pro Bono Legal Services
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
Lawmakers have proposed an amendment to the State Bar Act that would declare pro bono service to be a responsibility of every lawyer.
On Tuesday, the Assembly amended SB 686—which seeks to fine-tune certain fee, licensure and regulation provisions in the State Bar Act—to include a section on pro bono legal services.
The amendment would add Sec. 6073 to the Business & Professions Code to recite the tradition of voluntary pro bono service in the legal profession, and state that every lawyer “is expected to make a contribution” to that end.
An attorney who is unable to contribute services “may instead fulfill his or her individual pro bono ethical commitment, in part, by providing financial support to organizations providing free legal services to persons of limited means,” the section goes on to say. It further notes that that pro bono contributions may be measured collectively in some circumstances, such as aggregate work done by law firms.
In addition to encouraging pro bono legal service, the section underscores the importance of attorney involvement in voluntary public service activities that increase access to justice or improve the legal system.
State Bar President Sheldon Sloan told the MetNews the language of proposed Sec. 6073 is supported by the organization.
“I think it’s indicative of both the bar’s desire and the Legislature’s desire that lawyers volunteer pro bono time, and it kind of sets forth guidelines for those who want to do that,” he said.
But Los Angeles attorney Diane Karpman, an ethics expert and member of the State Bar’s Attorney Civility Task Force, said “guidelines” such as these could potentially develop into requirements.
“If it’s just an expression of public policy, that’s fine, but my concern is this is the first step down a slippery slope where this will be used to engender rules and regulations requiring that lawyers give away their labor,” Karpman remarked.
Explaining that participation in pro bono activities has been a long considered a mitigating factor in determining the repercussions imposed in attorney discipline cases, she said that in a sense, there is already a “quasi-requirement” that lawyers contribute free services to the public. With the Legislature putting further emphasis on pro bono, that could eventually solidify into a mandate, she opined.
“I’m not suggesting that it’s not an inherent characteristic of the profession, because it is , but to have it being legislated is incredibly troubling,” Karpman said.
“It’s not a very far reach to there being some type of a rule.”
Concerns About Language
She noted that SB 686, authored by Senator Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro and introduced in the Senate on Feb. 23, was supposed to be a “fee bill,” and characterized Tuesday’s amendment as just “throwing in” pro bono in at the last minute.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said.
Sloan pointed out that the language in Sec. 6073, which originated with Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, and was concurred in by Corbett, does not set a requirement for lawyers.
“I don’t think it can be construed as mandatory,” he said. “We’ve all looked at it carefully.”
The issue of an attorney’s pro bono responsibilities has been discussed and debated by Karpman and other members of the Attorney Civility Task Force, whose proposed statewide attorney civility guidelines, in revised form, are set to be voted on at Friday’s Board of Governors meeting.
An early draft of the guidelines had included the statement that a lawyer “should contribute pro bono time to community activities and to individuals who cannot afford legal services.” The language provoked strong responses from both supporters and opponents, the latter who urged that “should” be omitted or at least softened to read “is encouraged to.”
As revised, the section reads, “An attorney should be mindful that, as individual circumstances permit, the goals of the profession include improving the administration of justice and contributing time to persons and organizations that cannot afford legal assistance.”
Despite the softened language, Karpman said the section creates a suggestion that could lead to an onerous requirement.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company