"Check Yes” to Lend a “Learned Hand”
Utah’s Pro Bono Commission
by Judge Michele M. Christiansen and Judge Royal I. Hansen
Utah State Bar President Rod Snow has invited us to deliver this month’s “Commission Message” to update you regarding the Bar’s newly initiated Utah State Bar Pro Bono Commission. We are thrilled to co-chair the Pro Bono Commission, a state-wide body tasked with improving voluntary pro bono legal services throughout the state. After months of preparation, the Pro Bono Commission held its inaugural meeting in April to launch the pro bono program and to begin recruiting volunteer lawyers from private law firms, government offices, and in-house counsel settings to provide vital legal services to the needy. We are especially pleased to be joined by Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham and more than a dozen other dedicated volunteers who have agreed to serve as commissioners on the Pro Bono Commission. See sidebar listing Pro Bono Commission members.
In the coming months, we will provide you with information about this new and important effort, and we hope that you will seriously consider becoming involved. As Judge Learned Hand once said, “[i]f we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.” In keeping with this spirit, the Pro Bono Commission’s motto is “Lend a ‘Learned Hand’.” This slogan, we believe, captures a spirit that we hope you will embrace by volunteering to provide legal services to our most needy Utahns.
In addition to the hundreds of hours the Utah State Bar has invested to develop and initiate this important program, we are pleased to announce that the Utah Judicial Council passed a resolution endorsing the Pro Bono Commission. Specifically, the Judicial Council’s resolution states:
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, pursuant to Rule 2-201 of the Utah Rules of Judicial Administration, that the Utah Judicial Council endorses the Utah State Bar’s creation of the Pro Bono Commission and urges law firms, corporate law departments, and governmental law offices to adopt pro bono policies and procedures to engage all lawyers in pro bono service that will increase access to equal justice; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that, subject to the Utah Code of Judicial Conduct, we support the participation of judges in Utah Pro Bono Commission and District Pro Bono Committees activities to promote the wider availability of pro bono services.
The Pro Bono Commission will next focus on encouraging members of the Bar to volunteer for our program. We recognize that many of you are already committed to providing pro bono legal services in our community, and we sincerely thank you. In fact, the Bar’s recent survey, completed by over half of Utah State Bar members, revealed to us that more than 70% of those responding are already engaged in pro bono work on a weekly basis. The Pro Bono Commission’s program is designed to reach out to those of you already providing pro bono legal services, and to those of you newly considering volunteering your time to provide legal representation to those in need.
On your 2012 License Renewal Form, you will be given the opportunity to check “Yes.” Checking “Yes” will signify your willingness to volunteer to provide pro bono legal services on a case-by-case basis. The Pro Bono Commission members may be visiting you and your law firms to encourage you to check “Yes” and to provide pro bono legal services in Utah. Please look for electronic announcements and other promotional materials regarding your opportunity to check “Yes” and lend a “Learned Hand” in support of the Pro Bono Commission. We hope that each and every one of you, when you complete your License Renewal Form will check “Yes” for the Pro Bono Commission.
Those of you who check “Yes” will receive a brief, easy-to-complete electronic survey designed to determine your areas of interest, normal practice areas, and location. The Pro Bono Commission will then use this information to “match” volunteer lawyers with clients in need of pro bono legal services. The task of “matching” volunteer lawyers with pro bono clients will be managed by Pro Bono Committees in each of Utah’s eight judicial districts. The model of “district-based” pro bono services is one adopted by many states throughout the West and across the nation. District-based Pro Bono Committees are better suited to efficiently distribute pro bono services at a local level in response to individual community needs. In addition, District Pro Bono Committees will better be able to develop programs for improving local pro bono programs, such as the popular Tuesday Night Bar programs and other legal clinics for low income Utahns.
Importantly, this is a volunteer program. The Pro Bono Commission is designed to give volunteer lawyers the opportunity to select from a number of cases to choose matters that match lawyer practice areas and skill sets. In those instances where, due to the vagaries of the practice of law, you do not have time to take a case, you will be free to decline it. Our Utah Rules of Professional Conduct contain aspirational goals that each Utah State Bar member provide fifty hours of pro bono services annually. See Utah R. Prof’l Conduct 6.1. But the Pro Bono Commission is a volunteer program, and the Commission is committed to respecting the busy schedules that govern the way so many of you manage your practices.
The Pro Bono Commission will be providing free CLE and training for program participants who wish to develop skills in new areas. For instance, commercial litigators can attend free CLE to develop the skills to handle domestic cases which would allow them to assist pro bono clients in need of basic family law legal services. In-house counsel can learn how to assist low income clients with small consumer bankruptcy matters. Transactional lawyers can attend a CLE for training on how to obtain protective orders for domestic violence victims. Retired lawyers anxious to give back to the community can brush up their skills and prepare themselves to volunteer in the Pro Bono Commission’s program. In short, the Pro Bono Commission’s program takes a holistic approach to providing pro bono legal services, connecting needy clients with lawyers who have the skills to provide assistance where it is needed most.
The Pro Bono Commission not only needs volunteer lawyers to provide legal assistance to the needy, but also to help lead the Pro Bono Committees in Utah’s eight judicial districts. Each district committee will be staffed by two co-chairs and an additional eight to ten members. The District Committees’ responsibilities include developing local pro bono programs and ensuring that the matching of volunteer lawyers with pro bono clients, a process that will be largely automated and directed by the Bar’s Pro Bono Coordinator, is done as effectively as possible. The Pro Bono Commission has already solicited/requested that you assist in this important aspect of the program, and we ask you to seriously consider volunteering your services on a District Pro Bono Committee.
In 2006, “and Justice for all” conducted an exhaustive study of unmet legal needs throughout the state. The conclusions reached by the study were startling: While Utah’s dedicated non-profit agencies, like Utah Legal Services, Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, and the Disability Law Center provide exceptional service to the needy, hundreds of Utahns go without legal representation and, as a result, are denied access to justice. Accordingly, we need your help in our attempts to remedy this problem.
Only clients who meet eligibility guidelines will be permitted to participate in the program. Pro bono clients will be screened by Bar staff and non-profit legal service providers like Utah Legal Services. Those clients who meet the criteria for pro bono legal services will provide information to intake personnel who will create case summaries for each potential pro bono case. District Pro Bono Committees will distribute case summaries to volunteer lawyers so that they can select appropriate cases and perform necessary conflicts checks.
Volunteer lawyers will not walk the pro bono road alone. The Utah State Bar recently hired an attorney, Michelle V. Harvey, to serve as the Bar’s Pro Bono Coordinator. Ms. Harvey, an attorney and dedicated champion of pro bono legal services, left her private practice to take on this unique challenge and help launch Utah’s Pro Bono Commission. Her responsibilities include ensuring that volunteer lawyers enjoy the support they need in their pro bono cases. Ms. Harvey will also be responsible for maintaining a database of pro bono cases, developing case summaries, providing support to the Pro Bono Commission and the District Pro Bono Committees, and serving as the administrative support structure for the entire program.
We firmly believe that your willingness to volunteer your time and provide pro bono legal services will not only help fill the ever-widening gap of unmet legal needs, but will also enrich your life and your practice. Lawyers have a unique skill set that few other professionals possess. Those of you who are willing to volunteer your time can change people’s lives. Participating in a matter that may seem small in scope and take an hour or two of your time can hugely benefit those in need and pay huge dividends to you by improving your level of satisfaction in your practice.
For these reasons we ask you to seize the opportunity to get involved in the Pro Bono Commission. Please check “Yes” on this year’s bar License Renewal Form to lend a “Learned Hand.” We look forward to working with you and thank you for your dedicated service.