Nevada's pro bono mandate triggers anger among lawyers

RADICAL plans by US lawyers in Nevada to introduce mandatory pro bono for the State Bar have been torpedoed by strong resistance from a “vocal minority” of attorneys.

The State Bar of Nevada had hoped the five-judge State Supreme Court would rule this month in favour of a scheme requiring attorneys to give 20 hours a year or $500, but withdrew its application after a rebellion among some of its 4,000 members.

The Nevada rebels branded attempts to force pro bono on them as “unconstitutional” and “just another tax on lawyers”.

And while the court's judges back the plan, one of the judges joined the rebels to call for a re-examination of the issue, and even challenged the concept of a mandatory Bar membership for lawyers.

Rosie Small, Nevada State Bar director and a leading national pro bono campaigner, dismisses the objections, saying they came from people who actually do the most pro bono work.

“This is the American West. These people are cowboys out here. They don't like anything that is mandatory. There was resistance even to continuing legal education.”

Wayne Pressel, chief executive of non profit-making pro bono law firm Nevada Legal Services, says: “We wanted a touchdown but got 20 yards. But we've made it an issue, which is great.”

Small and Pressel are working on different approaches to encouraging pro bono. Small, in her previous post as executive director of a county Bar association in Virginia, established several initiatives which she hopes to launch in Nevada. Top of the list is a reduced fee panel, where Nevada attorneys can undertake work at around $70 an hour compared with an average cost of $150.

Pressel says they will submit a new petition to the Supreme Court with a revised plan based on a radical scheme running in Florida. This will encourage involvement from district judges at local courts to set up panels of lawyers and lay people to support the “20-hours or $500” target as a non-mandatory “aspirational goal”.