ABA survey finds 66 per cent of US lawyers work pro bono

In the US last year, two-thirds of the legal profession gave free legal assistance to people of limited means and groups helping the poor, according to a new survey by the American Bar Association (ABA). The first national survey of lawyers’ pro bono activity found that some 66 per cent of lawyers gave free legal assistance and volunteered an average of 39 hours of work during the year.

“The legal needs of the poor go largely unmet,” says ABA president Robert Grey Jr. “Despite the worthy efforts of legal services and pro bono lawyers, indigent people don’t have adequate access to justice. This survey helps us understand pro bono and will allow us to develop more effective strategies to better meet the needs of the poor.”

The research was conducted by the ABA’s standing committee on pro bono and public service. The ABA plans to use the data to track pro bono activity and assist strategies for increasing pro bono work in the future. According to the committee’s chair Debbie Segal, it will be “a powerful tool in devising new approaches to encourage pro bono work and reduce inequalities in access to justice”.

In the US, pro bono work is defined according to the ABA’s rules of professional conduct as “free legal service to the poor and organisations serving the poor and substantially reduced-fee work for such groups, as well as civil rights, civil liberties, public rights, charitable, religious civic, community, governmental and educational organisations”. The survey found that while 66 per cent of lawyers provided free legal services to the poor, another 18 per cent were engaged in pro bono work that met the wider aspects of the ABA definition. Only a small minority – 2 per cent of respondents – reported pro bono activity that did not meet the ABA definition. Just 14 per cent of firms said they had not performed any type of pro bono activity, while almost half – 46 per cent – of lawyers met the ABA’s “aspirational goal” of providing at least 50 hours of free legal services in a year. The research also looked at what motivates lawyers to sign up to pro bono initiatives. When asked for the top two factors encouraging pro bono activity, 70 per cent of lawyers reported a sense of professional responsibility and personal satisfaction, while 34 per cent cited recognition of the needs of the poor. In contrast, when asked about the top two factors discouraging pro bono work, 69 per cent of lawyers reported a perceived lack of time, while 15 per cent named pressure to work a minimum number of billable hours and 12 per cent cited cost concerns.