Putting the pro in pro bono

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Page 13 of this month’s ‘Montana Lawyer’ (pdf, 40 pg.) features the 2006 pro bono report compiled by a VISTA working with the State Bar. His report concludes that the two most effective organized pro bono programs come from court-administered (read: mandated) programs like in Silver Bow County (Butte) and local-firm administered programs like in Billings. What are the most effective ways of galvanizing attorney support in your area?

The court-administered program in Butte simply uses an alphabetical list of attorneys who are members of the local bar organization. Clerks of court and other employees of the judicial system contact the next lawyer on the list when a pro bono need arises, only severely mitigating circumstances (upcoming trial dates or illness) are permitted to excuse an attorney from his/her duty. When local attorneys do not cooperate, the 2nd Judicial District Judges then make the calls which most often results in full cooperation. Essentially, the program is effective due to the top-level support offerred by the Judges and their court staff.

Billings’ successful pro bono program can be attributed to the firm-administered policies by Crowley, Haughey, Hanson, Toole & Dietrich, whose attorneys averaged almost 40 hours of legal advice or representation administered without any expectation of fees. Although Rule 6.1 of Montana’s Rules of Professional Conduct suggests that it is each attorney’s professional responsibility to provide 50 hours of pro bono service, it is neither a requirement nor enforcable by existing State Bar practices. The Crowley firm’s commitment to service is thus highly commendable and should serve as a model for other firms.

What does this report have to do with self-representation? Well, the more attorneys are involved with free legal services, the higher the likelihood that Montana will begin to take the legislative steps necessary to allow for activities like unbundled legal services and lawyer staffed self-help workstations. The more firms and courts are recognized for their commitment to service, the more incentive exists for lawyers to provide pro bono hours any way they can. As of now, only one courthouse workstation (in the state capital of Helena) can be maintained due to a dearth of volunteers. Montana Legal Services Association has made an effort to open a second workstation in the University town of Missoula, where law students can provide the volunteer hours necessary to sustain such an endeavour. But MLSA can only do so much, and because attorneys exist and are encouraged to provide service everywhere in Montana, they are a relatively untapped yet potentially valuable resource for the pro se community.
Butte, MT
Because unbundling is yet to take off in Montana, the report also notes that pro bono representation is an effective means of relieving the pro se docket, especially in family law cases for which the Bar offers discounted or free resources in the form of Form Books and a mentoring service through which pro bono lawyers can receive advice from more expereinced attorneys who have dealt with the nuances of specific case types. What kind of resources are offered by your local bar to assist attorneys and how do these relate to the pro se litigant?

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