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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

2017 ABA Pro Bono Survey

Survey Says…

A look at Minnesota lawyers’ participation in and views of pro bono work

Minnesota has long been a leader in supporting civil legal aid through both dedicated state funding sources and charitable giving, as well as through policies that encourage and support pro bono work by lawyers. Last year, the American Bar Association (ABA) conducted its latest national survey of attorneys to find out more about the kind of pro bono services provided in 2016, the lawyers providing them, and the range of motivations for (and barriers to) doing pro bono service. Minnesota attorneys provided over 3,400 of the 47,000-plus responses received nationally. This information offers a snapshot of pro bono service in Minnesota and highlights opportunities to better meet the civil legal needs of low-income Minnesotans. 

Nearly four-fifths (79 percent) of responding Minnesota attorneys indicated they have provided pro bono service during their legal careers, with half having done so in the prior year. Attorneys provided an average of 32 hours of service, and 18 percent met or exceeded the 50 hour aspirational standard set by the Minnesota Supreme Court in Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. (The attorneys who actually handled pro bono matters in 2016 devoted an average of almost 64 hours.) This matches pretty closely the national data, which shows 81 percent of respondents having provided pro bono service during their careers, 52 percent during 2016; almost 20 percent met or exceeded 50 hours of service.

Attorneys in private practice reported providing more pro bono hours (42.2 hours) than corporate/in house attorneys (9.7 hours) and government attorneys (6.8 hours). Private practice attorneys in large (50+) firms reported providing more hours than attorneys in smaller firms. Attorneys over the age of 40 reported higher rates of participation in the previous year than those under 40, and over-40s who did pro bono work also put in slightly higher hours. (For example, 44 percent of attorneys ages 35-39 provided pro bono in 2016 versus 57 percent of those age 55-59 and 60.9 percent of those age 70-74.) Limited scope representation only was the most common type of service (48 percent), followed by full representation only (26 percent) and both full and limited scope representation (26 percent).

Client sources

Pro bono clients came to attorneys by a variety of means. Approximately one-quarter received a referral from a legal aid pro bono program. Another 10 percent received clients from a non-profit, 4 percent from an independent pro bono program, and 2 percent from a judge or court administrator. However, 20 percent of the respondents indicated that the pro bono client came directly to them, 7.4 percent via a family member or friend, and 6 percent from a present or former client. Attorneys used a variety of means to determine a client’s low-income status. One-third relied on the referral source to qualify the client and nearly one-fifth otherwise relied on the referral source’s information. Over one-third (37 percent) relied on their knowledge of the client’s situation, and nearly a quarter (23 percent) relied on the word of the client. Less than 9 percent of the respondents actually reviewed financial data from the client.

Among the tasks performed, over three-quarters of respondents (78 percent) provided legal advice, 68 percent reviewed or drafted documents, and two-thirds interviewed or met with the client. Among case types reported, by far the largest involved family law issues (both full and limited scope representation). Among full representation cases, the other major areas were immigration and criminal law. Among limited scope representation cases, other major areas included estate planning, housing, and business/corporate issues.

Attorney attitudes

One of the most valuable aspects of the survey was the opportunity to explore attorney attitudes toward pro bono, including motivating and inhibiting factors. Over 85 percent of the respondents believed it was at least somewhat important to provide pro bono service, with 59 percent calling it very important. The top motivating factors for doing pro bono included helping people in need (4.3 out of 5), participating in reducing social inequities (3.65) and meeting ethical obligations (3.62). The factors discouraging pro bono work included lack of time (4.24/5), commitment to family or other personal obligations (3.99), and lack of skills or experience in the practice areas needed by pro bono clients (3.64).

Finally, the survey provided some insight into actions that could encourage attorneys to do pro bono. The top responses included providing CLE credit for pro bono (3.54 out of 5); in fact, Minnesota does provide for CLE credit for pro bono, at the rate of 6 hours of service to 1 hour of CLE credit, up to a total of 6 CLE credits in a reporting period. (Service must be through an approved provider as determined by the Minnesota Supreme Court’s Legal Services Advisory Committee.) Other suggestions included providing limited scope representation opportunities (3.53) and providing malpractice insurance (3.3). (Here again, all legal aid providers do provide insurance for attorneys who accept pro bono client referrals.) Respondents also pointed to having a member of the judiciary solicit participation (3.27) and providing free or low cost CLEs (3.22). Since many respondents seemed unaware that several of these suggestions are already in place, it appears that bar associations and legal aid providers will need to focus on educating Minnesota attorneys about them to increase participation rates across the board.

The ABA survey results demonstrate that we have an engaged legal community, but that we also have additional work to do to increase the participation rates in terms of both people and hours. The survey data should prove useful in developing approaches to encourage younger lawyers—as well as lawyers in smaller practices, corporate legal offices, and the government sector—to do pro bono work. As the MSBA and legal aid providers consider ways to increase participation, we have an opportunity to educate the legal community about the importance of pro bono service and the multiple ways lawyers can participate.

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