WASHINGTON – Lawyers and court officials hope a new mandatory pro bono reporting form being mailed to attorneys this week will spur them to donate more legal help to charities and indigent clients.
But others say that expectation might be unrealistic, since only the form — and not pro bono work itself — is mandatory in Maryland. Although state lawyer conduct rules encourage attorneys to invest at least 50 hours per year in pro bono work, that’s only a suggestion.
“As long as you fill out the form, you can do absolutely nothing,” said Simon Walton, the chairman of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association Pro Bono Committee and an attorney with Schultheis & Walton. “I don’t know that people are really that interested in the subject.”
But Walton added that the form is “an extremely good idea.” And some attorneys have already called the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland asking how to get involved in more such projects, said Sharon E. Goldsmith, the group’s executive director.
Those lawyers are “saying this (reporting requirement) has really raised my awareness,” Goldsmith said.
The two-page forms will, for the first time, require attorneys to track the number of pro bono hours they worked in the previous year. The forms were required under a change to the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct adopted last year by the Maryland Court of Appeals.
As part of the state’s push for more pro bono work from lawyers, the appellate court last year also established a statewide Standing Committee on Pro Bono Service and local committees in each county.
“Hopefully we’ll find out not only what’s been done, but we’ll also be able to focus our attention on those areas where we can do the most good,” said Chief Judge Robert Bell of the Maryland Court of Appeals. “We’ve always known that we’ve not met all the needs of our low-income, moderate-income people in terms of legal services.”
That unmet need is “severe,” said Janet Eveleth, a spokeswoman with the Maryland State Bar Association.
“Well over 1 million people in Maryland need legal services but don’t have access,” she said.
Goldsmith said her office has fielded calls from attorneys trying to determine what types of volunteer work qualify as pro bono. The court says pro bono work includes professional services at no fee or a reduced fee to the poor, to charities or to other organizations.
“Those are the more difficult questions because the lawyers need to read the rules themselves and use their own best judgment,” said Goldsmith. That includes “looking at the rule and knowing that the intent was to help those people who would not have access (to legal services) otherwise.”
Lawyers who do not return the form by Feb. 15 risk decertification. They could be recertified, which would allow them to again practice law in Maryland, after turning in the form.
“I’m sure that the court will be giving grace periods, and that reminder notices would go out before any attorneys would face decertification,” since the forms are new, said Eveleth.
“It’s going to be hard for anybody to lose their certification,” said Pamela White, a principal in the firm of Ober Kaler and a past president of the Maryland State Bar Association. She noted that attorneys have received several notices about the new forms.
“For somebody to be decertified . . . they’ve got to be not paying attention,” White said.