Pro bono legal work helps the less fortunate

Steve Korris Dec. 28, 2004, 9:19am

When a poor woman could not prove her ownership of the Collinsville home she had shared with her late mother, Edwardsville attorney Paul Lauber cleared the title of the property for free.

Lauber represented the woman "pro bono publico" – for the public good. "This was a very nice lady," he said. "She worked hard at a restaurant. I was really happy to be able to help her." He said he gave away about four hours on the case.

Lawyers do not have to practice pro bono. The American Bar Association declares that, "Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay," but no state or local bar requires pro bono activity.

Florida, Maryland and Nevada require an annual report on pro bono activity from each lawyer, and Illinois may soon join them. A special committee led by a Metro-East lawyer has recommended that the state Supreme Court adopt a rule requiring a pro bono report with every lawyer’s annual registration.

Committee chairman Russell K. Scott said the proposed rule would encourage Illinois lawyers to work 20 hours a year on a pro bono basis or contribute $250 to an organization that provides legal services to the poor.

Scott said annual reporting would allow the profession to track its performance in serving the poor. "It’s a responsibility of the profession," said Scott, who works in the Belleville office of Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale P. C, of St. Louis.

"Only lawyers can practice law," Scott said. "The poor should be represented for free."


Twenty years ago, Scott helped organize a St. Clair County Bar Association pro bono project through Land of Lincoln Legal Services, which provides legal services to the poor. He now serves as chairman of Land of Lincoln’s board.

Land of Lincoln recruits lawyers from a list of more than 100 members of the St. Clair and Madison County bar associations who have offered to represent the poor for free. Scott said pro bono lawyers handle about 20 percent of the agency’s cases.

Land of Lincoln executive director Lois Wood said, "We send a lot of clients to attorneys who provide great help. Some attorneys have been doing pro bono work for more than 15 years, taking two or three cases a year. It’s not all dramatic."

Sometimes it gets more dramatic than anyone expected. Land of Lincoln board member Julie Katz said she has taken referrals on family cases that turned nasty. "I have had clients tell me at the first meeting that they think their spouses will agree on everything," she said. "It turns out to not be the case, but I can't blame Land of Lincoln for that."

Katz said she has handled family cases pro bono since 1986. She works at Keehner, Cannady and Katz in Belleville. She said her father, Jim Keehner, also provides pro bono services.

In a free November seminar Katz taught about 100 lawyers the fundamentals of family law so they could take referrals from Land of Lincoln. "We felt that more lawyers would sign up if they felt they could be handed a divorce and work through it," she said. "You can work your way through it if you have a basic sample form."

Scott said, "A large portion of pro bono is divorce and domestic. There is a lot of eviction and forfeiture. There are a lot of insurance disputes, which is my expertise."

After the flood of 1993, he said, many lawyers settled condemnation cases without charging fees. He said, "There was not much publicity about it at the time but it was something we could do beside filling sandbags."

He said, "Lots of things are done on a daily basis with a call, a letter or a meeting. Legal service does not necessarily mean you are suing somebody. You are solving a specific problem by negotiating or getting information."

Lauber solved the Collinsville title problem on referral from Land of Lincoln. He said he needed signatures of the woman’s three brothers. "The boys were willing to sign over a deed," he said. "Everyone was cooperative."

Now, on another title case from Land of Lincoln, Lauber faces a tougher task. "The title spreads out across about ten heirs, and nine of them are dead," he said. "There are lots of children and we don’t even know who or where they all are."

Lauber said he would not object to reporting pro bono hours to the state. He said, "I keep track of my time without even thinking about it."


Some lawyers would have a harder time defining and measuring their pro bono activity. St. Clair County Bar Association president Gregory Shevlin said personal injury lawyers have fewer pro bono opportunities than lawyers in general practice.

Shevlin said lawyers in contingency cases often reduce their customary percentage in a verdict or settlement. He said workers' compensation attorneys often charge less than the 20 percent than the law allows.

Shevlin said, "It is not all structured pro bono, but there is a lot of time for which lawyers are not compensated."


Pro bono takes still another shape at the Neighborhood Law Office in East St. Louis, where Kathleen O'Keefe charges no fees but draws a salary. "I work for Catholic Urban Programs," she said. "I raise money from foundations or grants. It's not a great salary but I get by."

O'Keefe said she mostly helps neighborhood groups press for demolition of derelict buildings. "If the owner has the resources, we try to make them tear it down," she said. "If not, we try to find the public resources to do it." She said she has filed 130 demolition cases.

"The people that I help are very deserving," she said. "What they want is something that benefits everybody in the city."

Steve Scudder, counsel to the American Bar Association’s committee on pro bono, said lawyers can serve the poor through nonprofit agencies, through bar association programs, through their firms, or on their own.

"It’s not about the model," Scudder said. "It’s about creating opportunities for lawyers to do more pro bono work. Theoretically every individual lawyer could make up their own mind about what pro bono is."

Scudder said annual reporting has produced very positive results in states that have adopted it. He said, "It has demonstrated that it has great potential for increasing pro bono participation and bringing more attention to the values of pro bono."

The ABA in 1969 adopted a statement that every lawyer should find time to serve the disadvantaged. The ABA stated that, "…personal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer."

In 1979, an ABA commission drafted a rule requiring 40 hours of public service a year. This stirred protests, and the commission retreated. First it proposed that, "A lawyer shall render unpaid public interest legal service." Then it adopted a statement that, "A lawyer should render public interest legal service."

The American Trial Lawyers Association still objected. It declared that, "Some lawyers should not be telling other lawyers how much pro bono work they should be doing, and for whom, and disciplining them if they do not."

The ABA in 1988 approved a statement that a lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono service a year, with a substantial majority of the hours going to persons of limited means or organizations that address their needs.

The statement encourages additional services at reduced fees. "In addition," it says, "a lawyer should voluntarily contribute financial support to organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means."

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