Bar News - October 18, 2017
From the Editor: Pro Bono – Because It Matters
In New Hampshire, October is known as Pro Bono Month – a time to highlight the volunteer work of attorneys who set aside what might otherwise be billable time to assist clients who can’t afford to pay for legal services, or the organizations that serve such clients. (Nationally, Pro Bono Week is celebrated Oct. 22-28.)
For many attorneys, working pro bono publico – for the public good – is part of what it means to be a legal professional. There aren’t many other professions that call on practitioners to give away so much time and energy. The legal profession is also the only profession in which practitioners pay into a special fund (the Public Protection Fund, coordinated by the NH Bar Association) that can be used to make whole those citizens who, in rare instances, are wronged by an attorney. Other things set attorneys apart from other professions, too.
As Russ Hilliard points out in the profile piece about him on the front page of this month’s Bar News, attorneys are not only advocates on behalf of their clients, but also officers of the court. This special status carries special rights and responsibilities. Carrying out those responsibilities, in light of budgetary constraints and the growing gap between rich and poor in our country, can seem overwhelming, especially when you consider that in New Hampshire, only about 6 percent of the annual need for legal aid is met (and many of those who could benefit from a lawyer’s help don’t even know they need it). “Justice for all” at times feels like an aspiration that’s way beyond our reach.
But that doesn’t mean that one person can’t make a difference. Pro Bono Month serves to remind us of that. Doing what you can, even if it means taking just one case each year, moves the needle. To help illustrate this, we asked attorneys from across New Hampshire to tell us about their favorite “Pro Bono Moments." Many of them described moments when they knew, deep down, that they had changed someone’s life for the better. It matters, and by all accounts, it makes the practice of law more rewarding.
The NH Bar Association, through its Legal Services Department, makes it easier for attorneys to fulfill the responsibilities inherent to the legal profession. The NHBA Legal Services staff is trained to separate clients who have legitimate legal claims and financial need from those whose problems may not warrant legal action or whose financial situation may not qualify them for free legal help. For those who don’t qualify financially, the NHBA has set up the Modest Means Legal Program, which matches those who earn a slightly higher annual income with attorneys who are willing to accept payment on a sliding scale.
In many cases, Legal Services staff members handle several aspects of client intake, setting the tone and keeping expectations realistic. The Pro Bono program also can arrange and provide funds for litigation support services, such as interpreters and even some expert witnesses. Attorneys are free to focus on the legal issues and fight for the client.
Marilyn Mahoney, a Manchester family law attorney, has long recognized the ways in which the Pro Bono staff and infrastructure enable her to stretch the volunteer time she has to offer, so that she can help more people. This month, Marilyn receives the 2017 Bruce E. Friedman Pro Bono Award. I only had one chance to talk to Marilyn, by phone, but I remember it well. She took the time to help me understand the complexities of supervised visitation in divorce cases and the practical considerations of attorneys and judges with regard to visitation orders. Marilyn obviously sees the big picture and she cares a lot about how the system handles the problems these families and children are experiencing. I hope you will consider joining me and other members of the NHBA staff, membership, and greater community in congratulating Marilyn in person at the award presentation scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, at UNH Law.
As October wraps up, please read the stories of your fellow attorneys in this issue and learn a little more about the opportunities for pro bono service in your practice area. If you aren’t sure where to start, try NHBA Legal Services staffer Margaret Gilsenberg.
– Kristen Senz