The Journal of The DuPage County Bar Association

Back Issues > Vol. 23 (2010-11)

The Realities of Pro Bono Work and the Legal Aid Funding Crisis
By Jeffrey J. Kroll

“Despite the recent economic downturn,” the 2009 Annual Report for the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission tells us, “there [has been] an increase in both the number of lawyers providing pro bono legal services and the hours of services as well as the number of lawyers making monetary contributions to legal aid organizations and the amount contributed. During the 2009 registration process, 27,200 attorneys indicated that they had provided pro bono legal services totalling, in the aggregate, 2,197,041 pro bono legal service hours, including 1,113,778 hours of legal service provided directly to persons of limited means, an increase of 2.1% over 2008.”[1]

As of this writing, the ARDC had not yet tabulated the numbers for 2010, but ARDC Chief Counsel, James J. Grogan, tells us enthusiasm for pro bono work remains high among those who have taken the time to get involved.“Lawyers give so much of themselves,” he emphasized, “and they clearly think pro bono work is important.  A lot of my former students, for example, tell me the best part of their practice is when they’re doing pro bono work.  They say that the pro bono work they’ve done is among the most rewarding experience they’ve had as lawyers.  You get back many times what you give.”

The ARDC is charged with compiling information from lawyers about pro bono work by the Illinois Supreme Court. The Court thus amended Rule 756 in 2008 to require that attorneys be asked what legal work and monetary contributions they made in the prior year on a confidential basis.  “The Court wants us to monitor what’s being done in the aggregate,” Grogan explained. “The Court is very, very concerned and interested in knowing not only about what time lawyers are spending pro bono but also the level of contribution they are making to legal service organizations.  A fair reading of the rule would be that the Court wants to see what attorneys are doing.  The Court is at the vanguard in recognizing the importance of pro bono service and this lets them know what’s going on.”

The Illinois Supreme Court does not require that attorneys devote any specific amount of time or money to pro bono efforts but Rule 756(f) emphasizes that pro bono service is an integral part of a lawyer's professionalism.”[2]  Thus, while it may be encouraging to know that, in 2009, the Illinois attorneys who reported that they were doing pro bono work confirmed they were handling an annual average of roughly 80 hours each, it is still troubling that, at least in 2009, less than one third of the 84,777 lawyers licensed in Illinois reported doing anything at all.  

Big firms encourage attorneys and paralegals to make yearly pro bono pledges.[3]  Smaller firms may not require the same number of billable hours as the larger firms, but their members also work with fewer resources.  They have as much if not more difficulty taking time away from their regular workload to devote to pro bono but many still somehow manage to make the time.[4]  As Jim Grogan told us, “there are a lot of lawyers giving a lot of themselves to pro bono work. Lawyers generally are pretty good about giving their time to people who need help.”

Still, times are rough – for everyone – and the need for assistance, both in pro bono work and in contributions to legal aid organizations is thus more important now than in many years past.  The legal aid community, which is short handed already, is in the midst of a funding crisis. 

The money that legal aid organizations get from court filing fees is still there. “Civil filing fees hold steady and even increase from year to year,” DuPage Legal Aid Director, Brenda Carroll told us, “but the reserve we set up from the cy pres awards we got two years ago is disappearing.”  Other funding sources, including IOLTA, the Lawyers Trust Fund and Legal Services Corporation, are not providing the same support they were in years past and legal aid is thus now on the verge of serious trouble.     

Reduction in Interest Payments in IOLTA Accounts.   IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts)[5] has fallen victim to the larger economic crisis that our country has been living.  Congress created IOLTA in 1980 as a means to provide civil legal aid to the poor and support other justice system improvements.  The program allocates a portion of interest derived from designated lawyer trust accounts to provide legal services for the indigent without taxing the public, and at no cost to lawyers or their clients.[6]   Unfortunately, the program is also in peril, with declines in IOLTA money hitting nearly every state over the last three years.[7]  The hard facts are these:  “IOLTA generated $380 million nationally for legal aid groups in 2008, but that fell to $124 million in 2010…. Interest rates were at 5.25% in September 2007 and have since fallen to 0.25% or even lower….”[8]  Until interest rates increase, IOLTA is not the answer.

The Lawyers Trust Fund.  The Illinois State Bar Association and the Chicago Bar Association incorporated the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois in 1981 as a not-for-profit corporation.  “Two years later, the Lawyers Trust Fund became the beneficiary and administrator of the [Illinois IOLTA] program by order of the Supreme Court of Illinois.”[9]

The Lawyers Trust Fund starts out with $42 of every $289 paid by attorneys when they register with the ARDC each year, but the Fund also serves as the hub for IOLTA payments in Illinois and is seeing a dramatic drop in its resources as a result.  “The drop in interest rates has virtually decimated the income to the Lawyers Trust Fund,” said Jim Reichardt, a member of the LTF Board and the Chairman of the DCBA Legal Aid Committee, “The banks are paying virtually no interest.  The Fund received over $17 million in 2008, this year we’re expecting that will be down to something like $3.6 million. Now, what the Trust Fund did was it squirrelled away some money for the Grant Stabilization Fund, basically setting aside a reserve, so we’d be prepared for exactly the conditions we’re in now, and because of that, we haven’t yet had to butcher the grants that have been given from year to year.  But that money will run out.  It’s projected to run out by 2014 so, if interest rates don’t soon come back to previous levels, we will have to cut grants significantly.”

Legal Services Corporation.  Legal Services Corporation “is the single largest provider of civil legal aid for the poor in the nation. Established in 1974, LSC operates as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans.”[10]  A “quasi-governmental agency,” Legal Services Corporation “is headed by a bipartisan board of directors whose eleven members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.”[11] 

“LSC gives money all over the country,” Brenda Carroll explained. “They give money to the Legal Assistance Foundation downtown, Prairie State Legal Services, Land of Lincoln downstate. All of these groups’ funding is in danger of being cut because LSC is losing its funding.”  In February, specifically, the House of Representatives approved cutting $70 million from LSC’s budget.[12]  This would reduce LSC’s budget by almost 20% at a time when it is seeking an increase in its budget due to the dramatic increase in the number of eligible clients.  According to LSC, “The 2008 recession and rise in unemployment during 2009 created new stresses for legal aid programs. About 54 million Americans - including 18.5 million children - were eligible for LSC services in 2008, the most recent data available. That represents an increase of almost 3 million poor people from 2007.”[13] 

Conclusion.  The legal community is doing a great deal to help people get through what have been very difficult financial times these last few years.  DCBA Legal Aid Director, Brenda Carroll, is thus quick to emphasize how grateful she and the organization’s clients are for what people are already doing. “The DCBA does a great deal for legal aid,” she said.  “They encourage lawyers to do pro bono work.  The bylaws provide for it and people see it as important.  There’s a tradition here. A lot of the judges on the bench were attorneys who did pro bono work and there’s an expectation.  It’s what people are expected to do, at least in this county. The DCBA gives us grant money each year, the members make contributions with their dues, and there are a lot of events, like the golf outings, the Cougars’ game and Judge’s Nite that people attend. We have a lot to be thankful for.”

Still, the economic crisis now confronting legal aid organizations throughout the country makes this an important time for lawyers to step up and do more.  As one author concluded, the “perfect storm” now facing legal aid makes it vital that we all give just a little bit more than we have in the past:

“The problem is a perfect storm of IOLTA funding declines, cuts in state and local funding, uncertain federal support and a tight private fundraising environment. The situation is exacerbated by steep increases in demand for free legal services as millions of low-income Americans face long-term unemployment, foreclosure and other serious problems.[14]

[1] ARDC Annual Report, April 2010, p. 3-4.

[2] Comment to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 756(f).

[3] According to its website, for example, Jenner & Block devotes “at least 5% of its billable hours each year to pro bono matters.  In 2009, the firm's attorneys contributed over 69,000 hours to pro bono matters.”  When Winston & Strawn celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2003, the firm asked every lawyer and paralegal to sign a pledge to devote at least 35 hours to pro bono work during the year.

[4] I recently asked a new lawyer how much pro bono work she did each year.  She reluctantly responded, “None.”  Curious, I asked her if any of her friends from school had provided any pro bono legal services since graduating three years ago.  Her response:  “Nope.  How could we?  My firm requires me to bill at least 2000 hours a year, but since I want to make partner, I try to bill more.  I recently got married, but spend little time with my husband, who is not a lawyer.  I have a few non-law related interests, which my firm encourages, but I have no time for them either.  Don’t even mention working out.  What’s that?  I don’t even have thirty minutes to spend at the gym.  I’d love to do pro bono work, but ….”

[5] www.iolta.org.

[6] www.iolta.org/grants

[7] Karen Sloan, Legal Aid Groups Face Grim Forecast for the New Year, Daily Business Review (January 10, 2011).

[8] Karen Sloan, Legal Aid Groups Face Grim Forecast for the New Year, Daily Business Review (January 10, 2011).

[9] About the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, www.ltf.org/about/history.html.

[10] www.lsc.gov/about/lsc.php.

[11] www.lsc.gov/about/lsc.php.

[12] Legal Services Corporation, House Cuts $70 Million in LSC Funding, February 19, 2011.  www.lsc.gov/press/pressrelease_detail_2011_T274_R6.php.

[13] www.lsc.gov/about/budget.php.

[14] Karen Sloan, Perfect Storm Hits Legal Aid, The National Law Journal (January 3, 2011).

 
 
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