By Margaret C. Benson
Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation
May it please the court. We are here today for argument on our petition to declare a judge's obligation and ability to fully support pro bono legal services.
We will try to be succinct as we know your honor has a very heavy call today.
The issue of a judge's obligation should not be in dispute.
All attorneys have an ethical obligation to support pro bono.
The newly amended Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct of 2010 affirm that it is "the responsibility of those licensed as officers of the court to use their training, experience and skills to provide services in the public interest for which compensation may not be available."
The rules also state: "An individual lawyer's efforts in these areas is evidence of the lawyer's good character and fitness to practice law, and the efforts of the bar as a whole are essential to the bar's maintenance of professionalism."
Judges are lawyers. Ergo, they share in our profession's responsibility to provide pro bono legal services.
Our esteemed opponents insist that this rule does not apply because judges are not in a position to provide free legal services to low-income people.
They also note that pro bono is not mandated in Illinois, pointing to the fact that Supreme Court Rule 756(f) allows attorneys to report zero pro bono hours without fear of sanction.
We submit, however, the Illinois Supreme Court does not let judges off quite that easily.
Rule 756(f) defines pro bono to include "training intended to benefit legal service organizations or lawyers who provide pro bono services," while Canon 4 of the Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct allows a judge to "speak, write, lecture, teach and participate in other activities concerning the law, the legal system and the administration of justice."
So judges can help train legal aid and pro bono attorneys by contributing to legal service CLE programs or writing, reviewing and editing training manuals.
In addition, Rule 756(f) clearly allows judges to make a qualified financial contribution in lieu of performing pro bono.
Our opponents have suggested that it could be unethical for money to change hands between a judge and a legal organization. How silly!
I'm sorry, your honor. I will refrain from commenting on the ridiculousness of my opponent's arguments.
Regardless, it is crystal clear that judges can and should financially support legal aid and pro bono programs.
In fact, committee comments to Supreme Court Rule 756 state: "Certain lawyers are prohibited from performing legal services by constitutional, statutory, rule or other regulatory prohibitions. Members of the legal profession who fall into these exempt categories are encouraged to make a financial contribution to support the provision of legal services to persons of limited means."
Hello - in case you aren't sure - they are referring to judges.
Yes, your honor. I will try to avoid sarcasm in the future.
So if judges felt limited to the actual letter of the law, it is clear that they are not only allowed but actually urged to financially and otherwise support pro bono legal services.
However, we submit that there are even more ways for judges to encourage pro bono.
For instance, it is extremely effective when judges express gratitude to pro bono counsel in open court.
It is wonderfully encouraging when, at the conclusion of a matter, a judge thanks counsel for his or her volunteer services. It costs nothing and makes the attorney feel good. It also sends a message to other attorneys in the courtroom.
Another public support technique is to try to hear volunteer cases first. As you know, long waits in the courtroom can wreak havoc on an attorney's billable time.
Take pro bono cases first, let counsel get in and out and back to their paying work. They've done their good work at minimal cost and so has the judge.
Unfortunately, opposing counsel insists that calling volunteer cases first is the equivalent of judicial favoritism. Balderdash!
Yes, once again, I will watch my language. However, I must emphasize that judges are allowed to manage their calls in ways that promote efficiency and fairness.
Many courtrooms typically hear attorney cases before pro se cases. In fact, pro bono attorneys improve courtroom efficiency, so it makes sense to call their cases first.
Consider how much more difficult your call would be if there were no pro bono attorneys handling cases in this courtroom.
No, your honor, I am not threatening you. No, please don't call the bailiff. No, of course we would never pull our volunteer attorneys from your courtroom. I was just asking the court to consider . well, never mind.
In conclusion, your honor, I urge this court to rule that judges can and should support pro bono in a variety of ways. Thank you for your time.