Elitist Socialist Snob

Earlier this month, New York state’s chief judge announced the creation of a pro bono requirement for admission to the state bar. Earlier this month, I realized I was a little behind in my continuing legal education requirement to maintain my Illinois law license. As I scurried to find ways to make up my hours (I should just make it), I realized that my paltry pro bono hours in the last two years (our CLE requirement is stretched over two years) , including the training sessions for each, surpassed the CLE hours I was required to have. Personally, I got more out of the pro bono hours, in terms of professional skills, professional networking, and satisfaction with how I spent time I could have spent doing something else.

Once again, I came to a conclusion that I come to every two years: Illinois should ditch its CLE requirement in favor of a pro bono requirement for maintaining your law license. After some pointed questions from my husband, I tried to articulate why, exactly, I think that professionals–such as lawyers–should be obligated to provide professional service free of charge in order to maintain their professional licensing. My position comes down to this: I’m an elitist, and a socialist, who thinks everyone is morally obligated to give some of the surplus of their life back to the communities in which they live and work.

Our courts are critical to American society. People need meaningful access to them not simply to redress wrongs, but sometimes merely to order their lives: divorce, probate, managing their tenancy when the landlord goes bankrupt or doesn’t maintain the property. The state is already required to provide legal representation to anyone facing a criminal charge that may result in a jail or prison term, which in some places and in some cases is not handled by a Public Defender Office or Agency but by a private attorney authorized by the court to receive a small stipend for representing an indigent defendant.

The profession recognizes there are matters of such important that justice cannot be served if all parties do not have representation. So, how can it best ensure that free or low cost legal services are available to people who need them? Mandatory pro bono hours.

My husband wanted to know why I felt that attorneys should be so obligated, when other professions aren’t, and I could not come up, really, with a better answer than “legal services are different.” Much of the legal system is funded publicly–judges, court staff, prosecutors, the buildings. Even jurors get stipends. Private organizations get government grants, and private funding, to provide a host of free and low cost legal services. Although they employ staff and attorneys, they all rely on volunteer attorneys for some portion of their staffing.

The profession–and the government–obviously recognizes the need, but does not do enough to meet it. Some firms don’t accommodate attorneys who would need time during business hours to serve. There are bureaucratic barriers to pro bono for retired or inactive lawyers and malpractice insurance barriers for unemployed or small/solo private practice attorneys.

Of course, I don’t think everyone should have a free lawyer, always, and I don’t think that organizations or individuals who provide free, low-cost or sliding scale fees are necessary for every possible type of litigation or court case. But, my research at work revolves around judicial efficiency and it is clear that courts where everyone is represented by his or her own counsel function better. Cases conclude more swiftly; judges (or opposing counsel) are never forced to balance their own role against the need to ensure the pro se party has some idea what has happened or what is next required of him.

While my husband did not really dispute any of that, he did think I had failed to show a particular reason that an attorney should donate hours to a legal aid organization or to take a case without compensation. I guess he was right because in the end all I could say was legal services are among the category of uniquely necessary professional services–like, say, medical care–which society owes its members and only those in the profession are able to offer them. Therefore, they should be required to do so in return for the privilege of making their living as lawyers. Thus the “elitist socialist” label.

I have worked for law firms that required me to use paid time off to engage in pro bono work and I have worked for organizations which considered pro bono hours part of my job. It’s no surprise which I prefer to work for and no surprise which firm represents the society I wish we had.

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