Every year, the last week of October is the national celebration of “Pro Bono” — no-cost legal service — for communities with limited access to legal resources. Local organizations and attorneys are staunch supporters of the effort, often from behind the scenes.
The Pro Bono program initially launched in 2009 in response to a period of difficult economic downturn, resulting from the 2008 financial crisis, according to the American Bar Association. The campaign was met with unprecedented participation from attorneys, who committed to Pro Bono training in order to serve communities in crisis. Today, COVID-19 poses additional barriers to access at a time when legal services are in high demand.
While Pro Bono is often a professional commitment made by attorneys, it is a foundation of the legal profession.
“It has always been a fundamental tenet of the legal profession to help people,” said Danna Rich-Collins, the previous legal aid paralegal and manager of North Penn Legal Services in Williamsport. Collins spoke of dedication to “local non-profits, churches, neighbors, etc.,” as an attorney service long before Pro Bono’s establishment.
The tenet is written into legal policies, thereby becoming an expectation of an attorney’s professional practice. Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer and Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) President Wilkinson addressed a letter to attorneys of the PA Commonwealth in May, in which they called upon their duty of Pro Bono service. Formerly known as “Rule of Professional Responsibility 6.1—Voluntary Pro Bono Public Service,” the rule requires:
“A lawyer should render public interest legal service. A lawyer may discharge this responsibility by providing professional services at no fee or a reduced fee to persons of limited means or to public service or charitable groups or organizations, by service in activities for improving the law, the legal system or the legal profession, and by financial support for organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means.”
As the rule indicates, Pro Bono highlights legal efforts to provide for “limited means” communities. As Rich-Collins put it, Pro Bono “is specifically designed to help legal services and legal service clients” — that is, clients of those very “limited means” or low-income communities. Despite its target audience, Pro Bono maintains a founding purpose of serving local communities.
A prime example is North Penn Legal Services (NPLS), a public legal aid organization serving 20 counties in northeastern and northcentral Pa., which focuses upon low-income clients within each county of its service area. Those who exceed the maximum income level set by NPLS can look to Pro Bono services for representation. NPLS coordinates case assignments so that Pro Bono attorneys can serve community members in need.
Notably, Rich-Collins devoted 46 years as a Pro Bono coordinator at NPLS, among other roles. In honor of Rich-Collins’ contributions, a Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) Pro Bono Partner Award is being renamed 14 years after its establishment, according to David Keller Trevaskis, Pro Bono Coordinator of the PBA.
In Lycoming County, attorneys are expected to participate in Pro Bono and receive referrals from NPLS — unless an attorney opts out of the program. Donations are required from those who opt out.
If a county within the NPLS service area does not have an organized program, attorneys will take Pro Bono referrals as needed and contacted. These networks ensure the active participation of attorneys within Pa., according to the needs of a particular local community.
PBA president Kathleen Wilkinson and Pro Bono coordinator David Trevaskis addressed the many Pro Bono needs across the state, commenting jointly that “Whatever the needs are, lawyers are trying to serve the various needs, but the frustration is that there is always much more need than available help. That is why we turn to Pro Bono volunteers.”
The types of Pro Bono cases are a reflection of the conflicts that impact low-income populations in our Pa. communities, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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According to the 2020 Pro Bono report for the NPLS Williamsport office, nearly 70 percent of Pro Bono cases in Lycoming County during 2020 were domestic violence cases, often resulting in “Protection from Abuse” orders (PFAs). The next most common were custody cases, at about eight percent, and landlord/tenant cases at roughly four percent.
Rich-Collins spoke of the NPLS response to COVID-19, noting a list of effects upon Pro-Bono services: Uptake in unemployment compensation, evictions, domestic violence. Wilkinson addressed one population group particularly affected by COVID-19: Seniors.
According to Wilkinson, the PBA is actively studying ways to improve access to legal services, including efforts to make online services accessible to seniors who lack experience with technology. Wilkinson said the PBA highly regards one program in Lycoming County, Wills for Heroes, which proves successful in promoting access to legal services. Since 2007, the program’s volunteer attorneys have written over 19,000 estate packages for veterans and first-responders.
The relationship between an attorney and their client is crucial to Pro Bono work. As an attorney with a history of Pro Bono practice, Wilkinson said, “Being up close and personal makes all the difference in the world. The clients in turn are very grateful…that they have lawyers who know what they’re doing and can help them. There is so much gratitude. It’s very rewarding for them as well as for us.”
According to a former client of NPLS, the Lycoming County Pro Bono lawyer who assisted her was “a great help and understanding. I am glad this service is available to people like me who can’t afford legal help — it is a comfort to know there are people to help!”
Pro Bono may be a professional practice, but for Danna Rich-Collins, for President Wilkinson, and the active Pro Bono programs and attorneys across the state, Pro Bono fosters both an attorney’s personal relationship to their community and personal rewards for the aided clients.
How to find Pro Bono help
Where can people turn if Pro Bono attorney services are limited in their area? How is legal aid improving access for communities in need? The PBA suggests the following resources:
- Pennsylvania Free Legal Answers is a virtual online option based on the walk-in clinic where clients request brief advice and counsel about a specific civil legal issue. Lawyers provide information and basic legal advice without any expectation of long-term representation. However, an attorney may choose to extend long-term Pro Bono services to the client.
- PAprobono.net offers an online legal community that provides information and resources for pro bono attorneys, legal aid attorneys, public defenders, and other legal advocates interested in increasing access to justice. This site contains resources to assist lawyers in their representation of low income or disadvantaged clients.
- PAlawhelp.org provides clients with information on civil legal issues and answers to many civil legal questions. It was created as a place for clients to find resources; many of the 100,000 plus users each month consider it easily accessible.