On December 16, the Practising Law Institute (PLI) presented a program on “Ethical Issues in Pro Bono Representation”, featuring a star-stacked panel of legal services attorneys, pro bono coordinators, area experts, and more. The group discussed a variety of issues in pro bono, ranging from client identification and confidentiality to spotting and resolving conflicts.
The panelists discussed the difficulties inherent to many pro bono cases such as ensuring that unsophisticated clients understand exactly what the representation
entails and sometimes more importantly does not entail. They suggested a best practice of detailing relationships in writing, and reviewing documents line-by-line to guarantee that clients know the scope of the arrangement.
Douglas Chu, a partner at Hynes & Chu LLP, discussed client identification concerns, focusing specifically on Elder Law. Mr. Chu stressed the question “who is the room?” and the importance of speaking to potential clients one-on-one. In Elder Law, there are often parties with competing interests, but also clients who may want, and in some circumstances need, input from those parties. To deal with these potential difficulties, Mr. Chu recommended formally codifying the attorney-client relationship (once again, the importance of detailing arrangements in writing) and dealing with clients’ associates firmly but gently to preserve good relations in case their help is needed later.
After the program, I sat down for a brief chat about pro bono with three of the panelists:
- Jennifer Kroman, Director of Pro Bono Practice at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton
- Program chair Louis Sartori, Director of the Pro Bono Practice at The Legal Aid Society
- Michael Scherz, Director of the Domestic Violence Project at Lawyers for Children.
Lou and Jennifer agreed with the panel’s focus on the intertwining issues of client identification and confidentiality. One of the greatest challenges in pro bono is finding the balance between a lawyer’s duty of candor to the tribunal and the duty to attorney-client privilege. Jennifer commented that confidentiality is the “linchpin of a successful attorney-client relationship” and that knowing when and how to break it is one of the biggest issues in pro bono, especially because clients are often unfamiliar with the limits of privilege.
Reflecting on recent changes in pro bono, Jennifer highlighted Cleary’s internal pro bono wiki as an example of how firms can utilize technology to ease attorneys into pro bono work and widen their potential reach. Similarly, Lou said that technological innovations are allowing providers to find, train, and organize volunteers more effectively than ever before.
The Internet has revolutionized outreach, giving pro bono professionals the tools to provide potential volunteers with convenient and practical trainings (for
example, webinars that provide attorneys with CLE) and ease them into pro bono work through programs such as clinical hotlines. Michael commented that many pro bono opportunities involving vulnerable populations such as children often sell themselves to volunteers. The key is to make lawyers aware of opportunities.
At Cleary, Jennifer uses attorneys’ interests in their paying area to place them in pro bono projects that they will find fulfilling; for example attorneys in their Latin American practice work to help Spanish-speaking women obtain U-Visas.
Despite the advances in outreach, training, and service provision, the three panelists agreed that the two most important elements of pro bono outreach are the same as they have always been: 1) make sure that attorneys are having fun, and 2) once someone has volunteered once, they become exponentially more likely volunteer again. As Lou put it, they become recidivist volunteers!