Letter From The President of The Association Of The Bar Of The City Of New York

2006-01-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

"Our nation's largest law firms serve as models and leaders for the profession as a whole. If these firms demonstrate a willingness to contribute to the public good and to serve their communities É other lawyers will take note of this contribution and will participate in pro bono publico activities as well."

- Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.

Each year, more and more New Yorkers face the loss of parental rights, benefits, housing or other crises, because they are forced into court proceedings without an attorney or sound legal guidance.Recent surveys report that barely twenty percent of needy New Yorkers obtain the legal help they need. The Association will continue to urge the Legislature to increase the funds available for civil legal services, as an important means to address these needs. However, it is still every lawyer's professional and ethical responsibility to do their part to address this crisis by providing pro bono legal services.

Increasing pro bono activity in our city's law firms has therefore been a focal point of my tenure as Association President and was at the top of my stated priorities when I began my term. I am therefore proud to announce that the City Bar has launched a campaign to encourage New York City law firms to sign up as "signatories" to its newly drafted Statement of Pro Bono Principles. Thirty law firms (listed below) have pledged to follow these Principles as initial signatories.

The Statement includes a pledge that signatory firms will perform an aggregate amount of pro bono legal work that is equal to, or exceeds, 50 hours per lawyer per year (the advisory goal of the Model Code of Professional Responsibility), and that a substantial majority of those hours be devoted to persons of limited means or to organizations committed to serving the needs of the poor. The pledge also involves the adherence to policies designed to encourage the firm's lawyers to engage in pro bono work. These principles thus ask firms to commit to ambitious goals. I am therefore pleased that so many have already taken this important step, recognizing that the need for civil legal services far outstrips the resources that are now available.

Striking An Appropriate Balance

The Association believes that all lawyers can find an appropriate balance between work for fee-paying clients and their professional responsibility to volunteer legal counsel to pro bono clients. By signing the Statement of Pro Bono Principles, signatory firms pledge to observe the following guidelines:

  • Pro bono hours will be counted the same way as billable hours and looked upon favorably when making personnel decisions;
  • Awards or recognition will be provided to lawyers who perform outstanding pro bono work, and that such work will be noted in internal and external publications;
  • Senior lawyers will be strongly encouraged to participate in pro bono activities, in recognition that people lead by example;
  • Newly hired lawyers will be asked to participate in at least one pro bono matter during their first year of employment;
  • Lawyers undertaking pro bono work have access to training materials, mentoring, manuals and other relevant support for their efforts.
  • These principles are more than a promise of a number of hours. They are a commitment to best practices that help ensure that these pro bono efforts receive the requisite recognition and support.

    The Association's Role In Improving Access To Justice

    The Principles were developed by the Association's Committee on Pro Bono and Legal Services, chaired by William Russell of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, (with substantial assistance from Committee Member Kevin Curnin of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan). In the months ahead, the Committee plans to hold periodic meetings with representatives of signatory firms to discuss implementation of the Principles and share ideas for innovative programs.

    Through our pro bono affiliate, the City Bar Justice Center, the Association provides more than a half-dozen public welfare programs where lawyers can volunteer their legal services, choose from many practice areas, receive relevant support - and earn CLE credits at the same time. The Justice Center's pro bono clients include: immigrants, battered women, the homeless, the elderly, cancer survivors, consumers filing for bankruptcy, and struggling small-business owners. The Center's most recent efforts have been focused on victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Justice Center is also available to consult with law firms and corporate legal departments on the development with pro bono programs.

    Law firms interested in becoming signatories to the Association's Statement of Pro Bono Principles are asked to contact Executive Director Barbara Berger Opotowsky at (212) 382-6620. The Statement of Pro Bono Principles and enrollment forms are available online. Please visit the Association's Web site at www.nycbar.org


    Bettina Plevan