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Pro Bono Publico History

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Pro Bono Publico (For the Good of the Public)

On This Page
I. Issue
II. Positions
III. Background
IV. Facts and Statistics

I. Issue

In response to a need for legal services to the poor, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that lawyers should aspire to do 20 hours of pro bono work a year or contribute $350 to a legal aid organization. Although this goal, set by the court, is not mandatory, individual reporting of pro bono hours or dollars contributed (if any) is required. This decision does not force involuntary service of lawyers, but it does provide a necessary and accurate picture of the need and fulfillment of legal aid to indigent Floridians.

Although the number of Florida attorneys continued to grow after that rule was adopted, pro bono hours have not increased at the same rate.

Through decades of committees, studies and initiatives, The Florida Bar has encouraged lawyers to offer pro bono legal assistance and has sought to improve access to justice.

That emphasis on pro bono work continues. William J. Schifino, Jr., The Florida Bar’s president for 2016-17, made pro bono work a centerpiece of his term. One of the five core issues he listed in the speech given after his swearing-in was: “Together we must continue to serve the legal needs of our working class and our indigent, making certain Justice is available for all, not some, not many, but liberty and justice for all.”

In an October 2016 message to members, he wrote: “Pro bono service is part of the very DNA of our justice system, because accessing justice shouldn’t have a price tag or be limited only to those who can afford it.”

More information about pro bono opportunities can be found at Pro Bono Matters.

II. Positions

A. American Bar Association

The American Bar Association encourages lawyers to volunteer more services to the indigent. The American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 6.1 states: “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year. In fulfilling this responsibility, the lawyer should provide a substantial majority of the (50) hours of legal services without fee or expectation of fee to: persons of limited means or charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations in matters that are designed primarily to address the needs of persons of limited means.” The Rule also provides that “a lawyer should voluntarily contribute financial support to organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means.”

B. The Florida Bar

The Florida Bar position regarding pro bono work is contained in the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, Chapter 4 (Rules of Professional Conduct), section 6.1, which states: “Each member of The Florida Bar in good standing, as part of that member’s professional responsibility, should (1) render pro bono legal services to the poor and (2) participate, to the extent possible, in other pro bono service activities that directly relate to the legal needs of the poor.”

The rule further states: “The professional responsibility to provide pro bono legal service to the poor may be discharged by: annually providing at least 20 hours of pro bono legal service to the poor; or making an annual contribution of at least $350 to a legal aid organization.”

The responsibility to provide pro bono services is aspirational rather than mandatory. However, The Florida Bar was the first state to adopt a required reporting rule.

III. Background

A. The Florida Bar’s Involvement

The Florida Bar has been a national leader in advancing the cause of access to civil legal services, from the formation of Florida Legal Services and support of the Interest on Trust Accounts program as a source of funding for legal aid to its role in helping to create a permanent commission to focus on the issue.

What follows is a chronology showing some of the Bar’s actions to support pro bono legal services:

Early to mid-1900s: For the first half of the 20th century, legal aid in Florida was provided primarily by bar-sponsored legal aid organizations; for many years, organized legal aid was a reality only in the larger cities.

1970: The Florida Bar commissioned a study of the legal needs of the poor in the state. The result of the study, the “Levinson Report,” found that only 21 of Florida’s 67 counties had an organized program for providing legal services to the poor. A major recommendation was to form a nonprofit corporation for the expansion and coordination of legal services to the poor statewide.

1973: In response to the Levinson Report, The Florida Bar, in cooperation with the Governor’s Office and legal services programs, organized the nonprofit Florida Legal Services, Inc. (FLS), to provide civil legal assistance to people who would not otherwise have the means to obtain a lawyer.

1974: Legal Services Corp. (LSC), a publicly funded, nonprofit corporation, was established by Congress to ensure equal access to justice for all Americans by providing civil legal assistance to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it. In Florida, however, pro bono involvement continued to suffer because of a perception that LSC programs had eliminated the need for private lawyer participation.

1981: To encourage pro bono activity by members, The Florida Bar Board of Governors approved the concept of bestowing pro bono awards, and it empowered the president to appoint committees and present the awards. The first nominations were accepted in the fall of 1981, and the awards have been presented at an annual ceremony at the Florida Supreme Court since 1982. That first year, the President’s Awards were presented to 17 honorees from Florida’s judicial circuits. The ceremony also included the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award, presented by the chief justice. Since then, the ceremony has expanded to include the Chief Justice’s Law Firm Commendation (1985), the Chief Justice’s Voluntary Bar Association Pro Bono Service Award (1991), The Florida Bar’s Young Lawyers Division Pro Bono Service Award (1993), Distinguished Judicial Service Award (2005) and the Distinguished Federal Judicial Service Award (2016). Past honorees are listed below or on The Florida Bar’s Pro Bono Awards web page.

1981: Florida again asserted its role as a national leader in public service when it became the first state to implement an Interest on Trust Accounts program (IOTA). Under IOTA, all nominal or short-term funds of clients or third persons are pooled into an interest-bearing account. IOTA contributions and income generated go primarily to providing legal services to the poor.

1982: A Florida Bar study revealed that LSC could meet no more than a fraction of the needs of the poor and that bar-sponsored legal aid programs should be revitalized.

1984: The Florida Bar Commission on Access to the Legal System was formed to explore ways to increase access to the legal system for the poor and middle class. The commission presented its finding to the Board of Governors in September 1985. A major commission recommendation was to request the Florida Supreme Court to modify the Code of Professional Responsibility, changing the wording from “a lawyer should” to “a lawyer shall” provide pro bono service, which in effect would make such service mandatory. The Board of Governors did not adopt the mandatory provision but voted to “encourage all Florida Bar members to redouble their efforts to contribute services to pro bono work.”

1990: The Joint Commission on the Delivery of Legal Services to the Indigent in Florida was created by The Florida Bar and The Florida Bar Foundation, following the adoption of mandatory Interest on Trust Accounts (IOTA) by the Supreme Court of Florida. The agenda of the joint commission was expanded specifically to study the status and possible expansion of pro bono legal services in Florida after a petition commonly known as the “D’Alemberte Petition” was filed. On Dec. 14, 1990, the court ruled that Florida Bar members have a duty to accept appointments from judges to represent indigents, even in civil cases. Further, the justices said the court could enforce fulfillment of that obligation. The ruling, however, stopped short of ordering each circuit to develop its own plan for meeting the legal needs of indigents or of imposing a mandatory pro bono structure.

1992: The Supreme Court of Florida adopted the Voluntary Pro Bono Plan as part of Rule 4-6, Public Service, Rules Regulating the Florida Bar. The plan requires Florida Bar members to annually report pro bono work and established an aspirational goal for attorneys to annually provide at least 20 pro bono hours or contribute at least $350 to a legal aid organization. The plan was implemented in 1993.

1995: The Pro Bono Compliance Certificate appeared for the first time on The Florida Bar membership dues statement for Bar year 1994-95.

2001: The reported data began to indicate that pro bono legal service hours per lawyer were declining. The Florida Bar’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services obtained a grant from the Florida Bar Foundation and retained a national consultant to civil legal aid providers, Carmody and Associates, to investigate the decline and recommend measures to strengthen the pro bono framework and encourage attorney participation

2008: The report from Carmody and Associates, “Pro Bono: Looking Back, Moving Forward,” was delivered to the Florida Supreme Court and The Florida Bar’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services.

2009: The Standing Committee on Pro Bono, led by Judge William Van Nortwick, launched the “One” campaign. The premise of the campaign was “One: One client. One attorney. One promise,” with the objective of persuading each attorney in Florida to help at least one client in one case. With the assistance of the Florida Bar Foundation, the campaign used a broad array of online media, posters and videos to reach attorneys throughout the state.

2014: On Nov. 24, by administrative order, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga established the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice to study the unmet civil legal needs of disadvantaged, low-income and moderate-income Floridians. The commission was the result of efforts by the chief justice, Florida Bar President Gregory W. Coleman and The Florida Bar Foundation. The 27-member commission included leaders from the three branches of Florida government, The Florida Bar, The Florida Bar Foundation, civil legal aid providers, the business community and other stakeholders.

2016: The Florida Legal Access Gateway (FLAG) — an online system aimed at eventually helping anyone with any size legal issue — was launched at the Bar’s Fall Meeting.

2016: At its July meeting, the Bar’s Board of Governors unanimously approved and forwarded to the Supreme Court rule amendments allowing inactive Bar members, retired judges and law professors to handle pro bono cases as “emeritus” lawyers. The amendments were recommended by the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice and were drafted by the Bar’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services. Under the existing rule, emeritus attorneys may be only those retired from The Florida Bar or other state bars. The amendments expand the category to include inactive Bar members, retired judges in Florida or other U.S. jurisdictions, current or former full-time law professors at ABA-accredited law schools, and authorized house counsel as defined by Bar rules. Emeritus attorneys handle pro bono matters only through legal aid agencies. Under current rules, there are 46 emeritus attorneys; the changes could increase that number to about 3,500. As of March 2017, the Supreme Court still was considering the proposed amendments.

2016: In October, the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice became permanent, by administrative order of the chief justice.

B. Judicial Involvement

Florida’s judiciary has long recognized the difficulties confronted by people unable to afford representation in civil matters. The Supreme Court has supported the preparation of self-help websites and forms, the annual pro bono awards ceremony conducted at the court each January and other initiatives to encourage lawyers to act on their Oath of Admission to The Florida Bar, “to never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.”

At the passing of the gavel ceremony on June 30, 2014, incoming Chief Justice Jorge Labarga pledged to address access to justice in Florida, noting that only 20 percent of indigent Floridians are able to receive legal counsel.

Recognizing that economic disparity threatens access to a fair and impartial judicial system, Labarga issued an administrative order on Nov. 24, 2014, establishing the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice. The commission was originally established for a term to expire on June 30, 2016, and tasked, among other things, with making recommendations on the need for a permanent access to justice commission in Florida. In its June 30, 2016, report, the commission recommended that it be reappointed on a continuing basis. The Supreme Court concurred with this recommendation, and the commission has been re-established as a permanent standing committee.

Almost 25 years earlier, in February 1992, the Supreme Court of Florida accepted the recommendations of The Florida Bar/Florida Bar Foundation Special Commission by adopting its comprehensive proposals to expand access for the poor to the justice system. The ruling called for lawyers to contribute at least 20 hours of free legal work for the poor or to donate $350 to legal service organizations that represent the indigent, the most comprehensive statewide system for volunteer legal assistance to the poor in the United States. The court also asked that a mandatory reporting rule be adopted whereby every lawyer reports pro bono contributions. The plan went into effect Oct. 1, 1993.

The federal judiciary in Florida also has been supportive of the pro bono initiatives described above. As but one example, U.S. Bankruptcy Judges Catherine McEwen in Tampa and Laurel Myerson Isicoff in Miami have encouraged robust pro bono representation (through their local bankruptcy bar associations) in their courts for debtors unable to afford private counsel. Those two judges were honored for their efforts with the Chief Justice’s Distinguished Federal Judicial Service Award in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

C. Increasing Role of Information Technology

The Florida Bar, the Florida Bar Foundation, Florida Legal Services and local pro bono committees are steadily increasing the use of online media to support pro bono volunteers and their prospective clients.

Through the “Lawyers in Libraries” initiative, the computers in public libraries (and the library staff) become an accessible neighborhood directory for these pro bono services. Training videos and webinars are available to help private attorneys learn the procedural and substantive aspects of those cases that may be less familiar to them – landlord/tenant, foreclosure, dissolution of marriage, and guardianship cases, for example.

Each court and clerk’s office in Florida is now able to use a website to make self-help forms, information, “frequently asked questions” and other resources available to citizens needing legal assistance but unable to afford private counsel. The Florida Courts have an excellent self-help website.

Information technology also helps pro bono coordinators maintain lists of volunteers by case category, report on available client cases quickly, and post schedules for classes, webinars and awards for pro bono volunteers.

IV. Facts and Statistics

The report of the Standing Committee on Pro Bono Services to the Supreme Court of Florida, The Florida Bar and The Florida Bar Foundation indicates that Florida Bar members personally reported the following hours of pro bono legal assistance donated to the poor and dollars contributed to legal aid organizations:

Reporting Year

Pro Bono Hours Donated

Pro Bono Dollars Contributed

July 1, 2022–June 30, 2023 1,528,856 $7,495,000
July 1, 2021–June 30, 2022 1,500,000 $6,800,000
July 1, 2020–June 30, 2021 1,505,616 $6,700,000
July 1, 2019–June 30, 2020 1,293,102 $6,369,364
July 1, 2018–June 30, 2019 1,606,632 $6,222,420
July 1,2017–June 30, 2018 1,581,941 $5,821,726
July 1, 2016–June 30, 2017 1,576,412 $5,569,575
July 1, 2015–June 30, 2016 1,648,409 $5,385,689
July 1, 2014–June 30, 2015 1,703,461 $5,198,645
July 1, 2013–June 30, 2014 1,881,396 $4,891,433
July 1, 2012–June 30, 2013 1,701,503 $4,852,888
July 1, 2011–June 30, 2012 1,675,498 $4,885,236
July 1, 2010–June 30, 2011 1,622,449 $4,812,275
July 1, 2009–June 30, 2010 1,614,676 $4,637,265
July 1, 2008–June 30, 2009 1,545,157 $4,443,830
July 1, 2007–June 30, 2008 1,489,099 $5,288,466
July 1, 2006–June 30, 2007 1,398,467 $4,446,486
July 1, 2005–June 30, 2006 1,450,505 $3,924,792
July 1, 2004–June 30, 2005 1,322,138 $3,408,484
July 1, 2003–June 30, 2004 1,457,644 $3,790,700
July 1, 2002–June 30, 2003 1,298,202 $3,746,150
July 1, 2001–June 30, 2002 1,247,546 $2,459,660
July 1, 2000–June 30, 2001 1,206,357 $2,314,181
July 1, 1999–June 30, 2000 1,146,501 $1,642,033
July 1, 1998–June 30, 1999 1,068,666 $1,688,708
July 1, 1997–June 30, 1998 989,333 $1,861,627
July 1, 1996–June 30, 1997 842,305 $1,427,263
July 1, 1995–June 30, 1996 709,070 $1,169,718
July 1, 1994–June 30, 1995 561,351 $876,837
July 1, 1993–June 30, 1994 806,874 $1,518,781

Pro Bono Service Awards Past Recipients

Prepared by The Florida Bar Department of Public Information and Bar Services with the assistance of the Public Services Programs Department.

[Revised: 12/14/20]