Frequently Asked Questions
Q. WHAT ARE THE PRO BONO RULES?
A. On June 23, 1993, the Supreme Court of Florida issued its opinion adopting the new pro bono rules effective October 1, 1993. These pro bono rules provide more definition and structure to the lawyer's responsibility to provide pro bono legal services to the poor. Rule 4-6.1 establishes an aspirational professional responsibility to perform annually twenty (20) hours of pro bono legal services for the poor or to contribute annually $350.00 to a legal aid organization. This rule also establishes a required reporting system.
Rule 4-6.5 establishes a structure with circuit pro bono committees and a Standing Committee on Pro Bono Services to expand pro bono service opportunities for lawyers, ensure the provision of needed support services, and promote lawyer participation.
Q. WHO DO THE RULES APPLY TO?
A. The pro bono rules apply to all members of The Florida Bar in good standing except those members of the Bar who are retired, inactive, suspended or have been placed on the inactive list for incapacity not related to discipline.
Application of the rule is deferred to judges and their staffs unless and until legal prohibitions to pro bono legal services are removed. Application of the rule is also deferred for the government lawyers who are prohibited from performing pro bono legal services by constitutional, statutory, rule or regulatory prohibition unless and until these prohibitions are removed.
Q. DO THE RULES REQUIRE LAWYERS TO PROVIDE PRO BONO LEGAL SERVICES TO THE POOR?
A. No. The providing of pro bono services is voluntary. The rules only require that all Florida Bar members report annually what, if any, pro bono legal service the member has provided or whether the member has provided (a) a contribution to a legal aid organization in lieu of service, (b) is deferred, or (c) has not provided pro bono service or made a contribution. The report form is on the annual Bar dues statement.
Q. IF NOT REQUIRED, WHAT PRO BONO LEGAL SERVICES FOR THE POOR ARE FLORIDA LAWYERS EXPECTED TO DO UNDER THE NEW RULES?
A. The Florida Supreme Court has set an aspirational professional responsibility for all members of the Bar (except those exempted or deferred) to perform annually a minimum of twenty (20) hours of pro bono legal services for the poor or to contribute annually at least $350 to a legal aid organization.
Q. WHO ARE "THE POOR" WHO ARE TO RECEIVE PRO BONO LEGAL SERVICES?
A. Under the rules, "the poor" are not only those living below the federal poverty guidelines (a sliding income scale based on family size), but also the "working poor". The "working poor" is not defined but is generally those families who have limited means and cannot reasonably afford the legal services they need. A good-faith determination by the lawyer of a pro bono client's eligibility is sufficient.
Q. WHAT SERVICES COUNT AS PRO BONO LEGAL SERVICES TO THE POOR?
A. Generally, pro bono legal services involve direct free legal assistance to an eligible client or client group or free legal services to charitable, religious or educational organizations whose overall mission and activities are designed predominately to address the needs of the poor. Direct legal assistance involves such services as representation, interviewing prospective clients, participation in advice clinics, co-counseling and mentoring on pro bono cases, serving as a mediator or arbitrator, and providing guardian ad litem services.
Legal services to charitable, religious and educational organizations involve such services as providing corporate representation to a non-profit group establishing a health clinic for the poor, providing real estate legal assistance to a church developing low-income housing, or assisting a charitable group feeding the homeless to obtain tax-exempt status.
Q. DOES PRO BONO LEGAL SERVICES TO THE POOR HAVE TO BE PERFORMED THROUGH AN ORGANIZED PROGRAM IN ORDER TO BE REPORTABLE?
A. No. An attorney providing free legal services on his/her own to an eligible client or organization can and should report it as pro bono legal services. However, there are several advantages to attorneys in providing pro bono service through an organized program:
- (i) client eligibility and nature of legal assistance needed will be determined by the organized program;
- (ii) assistance with litigation costs can be provided;
- (iii) provision of malpractice insurance on pro bono cases is available;
- (iv) consultation with experts in specialty areas is available; and
- (v) support staff services can be provided when needed.
Also, organized programs assist in identifying priority legal needs of the poor in the local community so pro bono services are provided to those most in need.
Q. DOES AN ATTORNEY GET CREDIT FOR PROVIDING OVER TWENTY (20) HOURS OF PRO BONO LEGAL SERVICES TO THE POOR IN ONE YEAR?
A. Yes. The hours in excess of twenty (20) hours may be carried forward and reported as such for up to two (2) succeeding years. However, it is hoped attorneys will want to continue providing needed pro bono assistance and will want to report all of their pro bono hours each year, so the true amount of volunteer service being provided in a year can be measured.
Q. CAN ATTORNEYS COLLECTIVELY SATISFY THE PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY BY APPLYING THE PRO BONO WORK OF A FEW ATTORNEYS TO SATISFY THE PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY OF MANY ATTORNEYS?
A. The Supreme Court of Florida encourages lawyers to personally provide pro bono services, but also recognizes that collective credit is necessary in limited circumstances because of the time, effort and expense involved. Collective satisfaction is permitted by law firms and must be under a plan filed with the circuit pro bono committee. The plan must be for providing legal services to the poor:
(i) in a major case or matter involving a substantial expenditure of time and resources;
(ii) through full time community or public service staff; or
(iii) in any other manner that has been approved by the circuit pro bono committee in the circuit in which the firm practices.
Q. WHAT ARE CIRCUIT PRO BONO COMMITTEES AND WHAT ARE THEY TO DO?
A. The Chief Judge or the Chief Judge's designee in each of Florida's twenty judicial circuits appoints and convenes a circuit pro bono committee composed of local bar association representatives, pro bono and legal assistance program representatives, at least one public member and at least one client-eligible member. The circuit pro bono committees are to assess the priority legal needs of the poor in the circuit, assess the potential pro bono resources within the legal community in the circuit, develop plans and establish opportunities by which the legal community can address the priority needs through pro bono legal services to the poor, and promote participation in pro bono legal services. Overall the committee has a planning, development, and promotional responsibility which is locally tailored to develop a pro bono culture within the legal community and assist the legal community to provide leadership in addressing the legal needs of the poor.
Q. WHAT IS STANDING COMMITTEE ON PRO BONO LEGAL SERVICE AND WHAT IS IT TO DO?
A. The Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Service is appointed by the President-Elect of The Florida Bar and is composed of:
five (5) members of the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar;
five (5) past or current directors of the Florida Bar Foundation;
one (1) trial judge;
one (1) appellate judge;
two (2) representatives from local and statewide voluntary bar associations;
two (2) public members, one of whom shall be a representative of the poor;
the president or designee of the Board of Directors of Florida Legal Services, Inc.; and
one (1) representative of the Out-of-State Practitioners Section of The Florida Bar.
The Standing Committee is to:
- (i) receive, review and evaluate the reports from the circuit pro bono committees;
- (ii) submit to The Florida Bar, the Florida Bar Foundation and the Supreme Court of Florida a report after the annual Florida Bar member reports have been received and analyzed;
- (iii) present to the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar and to the Supreme Court of Florida any suggested changes or modifications to the pro bono plan.
Overall the Standing Committee has a compliance, analysis and report responsibility to assist in determining the activities and results of the pro bono plan.
Q. IF PRO BONO LEGAL SERVICES TO THE POOR IS AN ASPIRATIONAL PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY, WHY DO WE NEED ALL THESE COMMITTEES AND REPORTS?
A. As far back as the Levinson Report in 1970 (co-sponsored by The Florida Bar and the University of Florida), the legal community in Florida has been faced with documentation of the overwhelming unmet legal needs of the poor in Florida, and the adverse effect this lack of access to the legal system has not only on the poor, but on the entire legal system. While in the subsequent years Florida has been a leader in seeking to address the legal needs of the poor, the comprehensive study of The Florida Bar/ Florida Bar Foundation Joint Commission on Delivery of Legal Services to the Indigent in Florida in 1991 determined that there were approximately 1,000,000 unmet legal needs annually experienced by the poor in Florida.
The Florida Supreme Court during this period faced requests for mandatory pro bono legal assistance to the poor. Also, The Florida Bar was challenged by the larger community to expand access and by the movement toward legal technicians and pro se litigation. The response by the Joint Commission, The Florida Bar and the Supreme Court of Florida is the Voluntary Pro Bono Attorney Plan to encourage locally-developed plans by which the legal community will provide leadership to significantly address the unmet legal needs of the poor.
The committees are necessary to provide the structure needed to provide the leadership required, to reconnect the legal community with the legal needs of the poor and to build a pro bono culture at the local level. The reports are needed to adequately evaluate how the legal needs of the poor are being met, to provide information needed to continue to improve pro bono services, and to emphasize the importance of the aspirational professional responsibility. The Plan offers the lawyers in Florida the opportunity to demonstrate leadership through local planning to significantly address the legal needs of the poor in their community.
E-Mail your questions about pro bono to Kent Spuhler, Executive Director of Florida Legal Services, Inc.