Volunteering in a Recession
posted by Michelle Harner
I heard an interview today with a representative of a nonprofit organization that matches volunteers with organizations in need—a sort of match-maker in the volunteer context. Interestingly, the representative reported an increase in the number of available volunteers during the recession (see also here and here). She attributed this trend to two things: people who had lost their jobs wanting to keep up their skills while searching for new employment and people generally wanting to help others in need.
The report piqued my interest regarding whether the recession was having a similar, positive effect on the provision of pro bono legal services. I suspected that more people were in greater need of legal assistance as a result of the recession, which in fact turns out to be the case (see here and here). I did not know, however, whether lawyers were meeting this increased demand. I like to think we are, but the profession’s record on this point is not necessarily encouraging (see, e.g., here).
The results appear mixed. Some reports suggest that the level of pro bono activity has remained the same or increased slightly in the past few years (but see here). (For interesting perspectives on the recession and the legal profession, including pro bono legal services, see here and here.) Nevertheless, even these increased activity levels fall woefully short of the reported need. So, given high lawyer unemployment rates and the desire to better train new lawyers, why does this gap exist?
Some law firms have encouraged associates who were deferred or underutilized at the firm to pursue pro bono activities (see, e.g., here and here). This approach likely is a win-win situation because the law firm and associates satisfy their ethical obligations to provide pro bono legal services, both also get the benefit of on-the-job skills training for younger lawyers and people get the legal help they need. Hopefully, this trend will continue after the economy and the legal market recover. (For an interesting discussion of pro bono work in the U.S. Supreme Court, see here.)
Many bar associations, courts and law schools (see, e.g., here, here and here) have pro bono and access to justice programs that make wonderful contributions to their communities and the profession. These efforts started well before the recession and likely will continue well after. But their success depends on lawyers’ commitment to the recommended 50 hours of pro bono service per year under the ethical rules. Reports suggest that 50 percent or less of lawyers actually meet this aspirational goal, at least in certain jurisdictions (see, e.g., here and here). Notably, Mississippi is considering a mandatory pro bono requirement for its lawyers (see also here).
What does this all mean for the profession and the underserved? I am not quite sure, but the cynic in me suspects that, when the dust settles, it will mean very little, as the value of pro bono work remains unrecognized in many law firm cultures. One nonetheless can hope that the underprivileged and underserved become surprising beneficiaries of a recession-generated upswing in pro bono activity.