Re-thinking pro bono

Issue December 2006 By Mark D Mason

Suzanne Garrow and her partners at the Springfield firm Heisler, Feldman, McCormick and Garrow PC are visionaries. They are part of a new and rare breed of attorneys — attorneys whose private practices principally provide legal services for those who cannot pay traditional attorney's fees.

The model their firm has adopted is one which relies upon fee-shifting statutes, such as M.G.L. Chapter 93A, 151B and 186 §14, for compensation. Indeed, the firm's success over the past 10 years is reflected in the respect it garners in Western Massachusetts as well as statewide. Most recently, the firm was awarded the Supreme Judicial Court's Adams Pro Bono Publico Award.

Heisler, Feldman, McCormick and Garrow PC has no expectation of client payment upon engagement, accepts no retainers and accepts no payment directly from its clients. The firm's commitment to pro bono representation reaches beyond its clientele. The firm's partners fund a fellowship for recent law school graduates. This year's recipient is assisting in representation of tenants facing eviction.

Perhaps what makes the firm's model so unique is that it is a relatively small firm without extraordinary resources. What makes the firm so special is its deep-rooted commitment to empowering the community in its legal needs, effectuating meaningful legal reform and ensuring the availability of legal services for all.

Throughout the nation, attorneys who have not participated in traditional pro bono representation, hitherto, are seeking creative opportunities to provide legal services to those most in need. Volunteer business lawyers in Washington, D.C. and Georgia have partnered with community-based organizations. In St. Louis, volunteer attorneys provide technical assistance and training to improve neighborhoods and create affordable housing.

At the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Taxation Law Section is formulating a project to offer training to community organizations and legal aid programs relating to the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. The Civil Litigation Section is working on a project to provide legal consultation and informational materials at homeless shelters. The Young Lawyers Division is developing a program to offer legal information to veterans' shelters across Massachusetts.

The time for expanding the delivery of pro bono services is now. The struggles of our profession to maintain a tradition of service to the community, while meeting increased business pressures, is well-documented. We all face financial exigencies which make pro bono representation at times impractical. At the same time, the demand for legal aid has grown in both traditional and nontraditional ways.

Advances in technology and the proliferation of attorneys providing non-litigation legal services create a unique opportunity for the bar to play an important role in the development of our communities. As we create and strengthen local economies, we benefit as individuals, as a profession and as members of the community at large. In preserving the rights of the few, we strengthen the opportunities for all.

As we diversify pro bono offerings in Massachusetts, we must increase, likewise, the delivery of traditional pro bono representation. Indeed, we must effectuate an overall cultural shift in how we perceive our role as attorneys in giving back to the community through pro bono representation.

The MBA is committed to diversifying and expanding pro bono representation throughout the commonwealth. I am pleased to announce that each of our section councils has appointed a pro bono liaison. Those individuals have met collectively and are pursuing opportunities for the bar with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and energy. As we promote such ventures, please join us in giving back to the communities which have given so generously to us.