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Pro bono hours, legal aid donations are up

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Pro BonoFlorida lawyers reported providing more than 1.5 million hours of pro bono services — potentially worth more than $380 million — and contributing more than $6.7 million to legal aid programs between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, according to figures from The Florida Bar.

Those hourly numbers were higher than for 2019-20, but lower than the two previous years. The donation level was the highest at least in recent years.

“We are very proud of our members for increasing both their pro bono hours and their legal aid financial contributions above the prior year, even in the midst of a pandemic,” said Bar President Michael Tanner.

The yearly pro bono statistics were presented and discussed at the October 13 meeting of the Bar’s Pro Bono Legal Services Committee, where members were encouraged by the higher numbers but also said they hope more can be done.

Overall, 38,989 individual attorneys reported providing 1,505,042 hours of pro bono work, and another 574 attorneys said they provided 22,970 hours through law firm pro bono plans. Another 25,054 lawyers said they contributed $6.7 million to legal aid organizations.

If the pro bono work were billed at a $250 hourly rate, the value of the volunteered hours is $382.5 million, according to Frank Digon-Greer, assistant director of the Bar’s Programs Division and who assembled the pro bono figures.

The numbers were compiled pursuant to Bar Rule 4-6.1(d). The rule sets out an aspirational goal for lawyers to provide 20 hours of pro bono service annually or contribute $350 to a legal aid program. While the program is not mandatory, lawyers are required to report on their annual membership fees form whether they met the goal.

There were 91,700 Bar members in good standing eligible to provide the pro bono services, with 17,232 saying they deferred because of job requirements or conflicts and 4,213 saying they provided services in a special manner. Another 37,934 said they did not provide any pro bono work or contribute to a legal aid program, and 2,094 did not report what they did.

According to the data, that average Bar member providing individual pro bono services did 38.6 hours of donated work. Those participating in a law firm plan provided 40 hours. The average individual contribution to a pro bono program was about $269.

The numbers were an improvement from 2019-20, but mixed compared to the two previous years in which lawyers reported more donated hours but lower donations to legal aid offices.

In 2019-20, lawyers provided 1.3 million hours personally and through law firm plans and contributed almost $6.4 million to legal aid agencies.

For 2018-19, lawyers reported 1.6 million hours of service and $6.2 million in donations, and for 2017-18 they registered just under 1.6 million hours and $5.8 million in donations.

Committee Co-Chair Kathy McLeroy said it was encouraging that the lawyers who reported pro bono work exceeded the 20-hour annual aspirational goal, although some standards suggest 3% of working hours be devoted to pro bono, which would be about 60 hours a year.

“I’m gratified to see the numbers go upwards,” she said.

McLeroy noted the committee is planning a pro bono summit at the Bar’s next Annual Convention and that The Florida Bar Foundation, with committee support, is restarting the One campaign to encourage pro bono volunteers.

Committee member and Foundation Executive Director Donny MacKenzie noted that lawyers have said it’s difficult for them to provide more pro bono services, while at the same time studies have shown moderate and low-income communities are vastly underserved with civil legal services.

“It’s wonderful what we lawyers do, but it drives home that we lawyers cannot be the only resources to solve their problems. There has to be another way,” he said.

Quoting former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ray Ehrlich, MacKenzie said, “When hungry people go hungry, we don’t look to grocery stores to feed them…. We cannot rely exclusively on lawyers to do this.”

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