Lawyers Have Donated More Than 1 Million Hours of Legal Service to Help Underserved, Maryland Judiciary Says
Maryland lawyers donated 1,035,327 hours of volunteer or pro bono legal services from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, which includes the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, to help the state’s indigent population, according to a new report released by the Maryland Judiciary.
Even while the pandemic closed offices and made it challenging to reach vulnerable clients, lawyers found ways to assist. The report, “Current Status of Pro Bono Service Among Maryland Lawyers, FY 2020,” which compiles the required reporting of pro bono legal service hours of 40,165 lawyers, was recently submitted to the Maryland Court of Appeals by the Administrative Office of the Courts. Attorneys practicing law in Maryland report their pro bono hours via the Attorney Information System (AIS).
The key findings in the report show approximately 44.9% percent of the lawyers practicing full-time in the state served people of limited means and other at-risk populations with free or substantially reduced-fee legal services. While there was slight decline in the percentage of lawyers engaging in free legal work, close to 16% gave 50 or more hours of their time to those in need. Lawyers also reported increasing their financial contributions to legal services organizations serving people of limited means, totaling $7,413,443.
“It is gratifying to know that Maryland’s attorneys remain committed to providing pro bono service whenever possible,” said Court of Appeals of Maryland Chief Judge Joseph M. Getty. “Pro bono service improves access to justice for the many people who cannot afford an attorney and helps to ensure that Marylanders statewide can obtain legal counsel regardless of their income.”
Polling revealed that the longer attorneys were in practice, the more likely they were to engage in volunteering their legal expertise on a pro bono basis. Sole practitioners and attorneys in small and extra-large firms (with 50 or more lawyers) offered their time and skills more frequently than those in large and midsize firms. Approximately 73% of the services were rendered as direct legal help to people of limited means or by assisting organizations serving those same populations. Overall, as in the past, those in the more rural parts of the state, such as Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, reported the highest percentage of pro bono involvement.
“The volunteer hours and financial contributions made by attorneys throughout Maryland help to fill the gap in serving those who simply cannot afford legal services,” said Senior Judge Karen Jensen, chair of the Judiciary’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Service. “Local attorneys are assisting people with matters that are critical to their lives, including family, consumer, housing, elder care, and other important matters that impact their daily lives or quality of life.”
The report confirms that lawyers volunteer actively and support legal services financially in their local communities. However, it also reveals challenges: the types of law that many attorneys practice do not necessarily correlate with the areas of greatest legal need; a significant percentage are retired or practicing outside of Maryland; and a large percentage are in government service, with attendant limitations on outside practice. For these government lawyers, who represent close to 25% of the bar, restrictions on their time and conflicts of interest posed additional challenges.
“These data are critical as we strategize ways to raise the level of volunteerism by the bar and give those without the means equal access to the justice system,” said Sharon E. Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland. “We are especially interested in engaging government lawyers who are public service minded and younger members of the bar, as they will be our future.”