Donations up, hours down for pro bono work
In a year that saw legal practices limited because of COVID-19, slightly more lawyers reported providing pro bono services in 2019-20 than the previous year, although the amount of assistance provided declined.
The money contributed to legal aid organizations, however, rose slightly. Lawyers may also be seeking alternative online avenues to do pro bono work, such as Florida Free Legal Answers, which has seen more consumers pose questions and more answers provided by lawyers.
“Hopefully, it’s a COVID fluke but it’s troubling to me when I saw the information [about the reduction in pro bono hours],” said Pro Bono Legal Services Committee Co-Chair Kathy McLeroy.
Noting that the number of lawyers reporting pro bono work did increase, she added, “That tells the committee that people are doing the work, they’re just doing less of it.”
According to figures provided to the committee on October 7 during the Bar’s Fall Meeting, 40,344 lawyers reported individually donating 1.293 million hours of pro bono work. Another 643 provided 19,531 hours through law firm pro bono plans.
That compares with 40,002 lawyers who did 1.6 million hours of individual pro bono work in 2018-19 and 577 who did 24,149 hours through law firm plans.
Another 24,368 attorneys reported donating almost $6.4 million to legal aid programs in 2019-20, compared to 22, 228 lawyers who donated $6.2 million the previous year.
“A lot of the in-person pro bono can’t be done; a lot of hours are done in the form of clinics,” said U.S. Middle District Bankruptcy Judge Catherine McEwen, the committee’s other co-chair. “Without the personal element, that’s a natural explanation and it’s COVID driven.”
The committee got an update on Florida Free Legal Answers from Francisco-Javier Digon-Greer, assistant director of the Bar’s Programs Division, who said the trend of more people posing questions that started with the COVID-19 outbreak in the spring has continued through September.
In April, as the virus shutdown was being broadly felt, 374 Floridians posted questions on the service. That number has grown every month and hit 481for September. During that time, the ABA, which runs the service for participating states, broadened the income eligibility limits, from 250% of the federal poverty level to 400%, or $51,040 for individuals and $104,080 for a family of four.
More lawyers have also joined the program, growing from 882 earlier this year to 910 by the end of September. Overall, since the program began in May 2017, Florida consumers have posted 12,504 questions and 10,487 have been answered, for an overall answer rate of 84%. For the past two months, the answer rate has averaged more than 90%.
Bar rules set an aspirational goal of providing 20 hours a year of pro bono work or donating $350 to a legal aid agency. While the standards are voluntary, lawyers must report on their annual Bar membership fee statement whether they met the goal and if so, how.
In other pro bono reporting categories, 36,174 said they did no pro bono work for 2019-20 and did not make a donation, 17,360 said they were prevented by their job from doing pro bono, 4,314 said they provided pro bono in a special manner, and 1,659 did not report their pro bono status.
In 2018-19, 35,127 said they did not do pro bono or donate to legal aid, 16,947 said they held a position that prevented them from doing pro bono, 3,988 said they did pro bono in a special manner, and 2,584 failed to report.
In 2017-18, lawyers reported providing not quite 1.5 million hours of individual pro bono, around 16,000 through law firms, and donated $5.8 million to legal aid.
Committee members discussed ways of letting Bar members know alternative ways of providing pro bono work that do not depend on in-person meetings.
“Once we start promoting that you can do pro bono after hours from your computer, I think that will pick up,” McEwen said. “It’s a matter of alerting people to the alternative delivery methods.”
“There are so many programs that are coming out of the woodwork. There are veterans programs. There are some with wider reach that are nationwide. I know of some immigration programs that are designing total remote opportunities,” said committee member Sarah Lahlou-Amine, adding information about those has been shared in the 13thth Circuit. “We need to look at ways to promote those throughout Florida.”