Lawyers coming through in tight times
William M. Everett, QC
I became Law Society President in mid-October, more than two months earlier than expected and in less than happy circumstances. As you know from the intensive media coverage of the past month, Howard Berge, QC recently resigned as President. We all understood why it was appropriate for him to step down. Still, I cannot make this early transition into the role of President without first acknowledging Howard's decade of valuable service as a Bencher and countless hours of volunteer service to the public and the profession. I wish to thank him for all that work.
As we wind down the year, I look forward to welcoming Federation of Law Societies representatives who are meeting in Victoria in November and hosting special year-end events, such as our 50-year certificate luncheon in honour of longstanding members of the profession. I also look forward to our annual Bench & Bar dinner in Vancouver where I hope to see many of you.
There is hard work ahead for the Benchers and staff in 2004, but I am pleased to say that the Law Society will head into the new year in a sound fiscal position. I see it as critical that we demonstrate financial restraint and accountability, especially at a time when many in the profession and the public face similar pressures. Our approach will be reflected in a tighter budget for 2004 and the Law Society component of the 2004 practice fee dropping 8.6% from 2003.
Despite the pressures many law firms face, I'd hope that we as lawyers have it in our hearts to reach out to those who keenly need our help yet cannot afford to pay us. By all indications, BC lawyers believe strongly in pro bono.
Of those lawyers surveyed last year, over three-quarters do some pro bono work, citing as their motivation a sense of professional responsibility and volunteerism. Without doubt, lawyers bring unique services to the community - we are often the only ones who can help level the playing field for people in trouble or assist charities and community groups carry out their work. For lawyers to offer that talent at no cost reinforces our role as true professionals and strengthens our call for better government funding of essential services through legal aid.
Not all lawyers can offer to work for free, or do so on an ongoing basis. Meeting existing workload, family responsibilities and community commitments understandably takes great time and energy. But even among the lawyers in the survey who were not doing any pro bono at the time, over 70% wished to in the future.
The Law Society has been instrumental in the launch of Pro Bono Law of BC, a society to facilitate pro bono services in the province. The operation is lean, staffed only on a part-time basis by an Executive Director and a Coordinator. It is not intended to become a service provider or to create a new bureaucracy. Rather, it is to put the right people in touch with each other so that more pro bono work is done and given a public profile. To widen the pool of volunteers, the Law Society has also extended its professional liability insurance to cover retired and non-practising lawyers, specifically so they can offer certain services through approved pro bono programs.
Law firms need to meet billing targets to stay afloat. But they also have an obligation to foster professionalism. For those of us whose eyes fix instinctively on the bottom line, we should consider strategic advantages to pro bono that may previously have been overlooked. American lawyers have done just that. They see pro bono policies as offering positive PR for their firms and a tool for recruiting the best lawyers. There are a range of pro bono policies in law firms, from those that are inspirational (simply encouraging lawyers to do pro bono) to those with a bit more bite (giving credit for pro bono work toward billing targets).
Without knowing the face of the profession five or 10 years from now, I am confident pro bono will thrive. I admire those lawyers within my own firm who have taken the opportunity to help people in tragic accident cases and in test litigation cases on a pro bono basis. And I know the commitment is reflected in many firms, both large and small, and in many communities.
Helping individuals in difficult circumstances with a case, from beginning to end, is a classic concept of pro bono. But it is not the only option. Some law firms are now choosing to "partner" with a charity to do all of its legal work, which may mean involving more than one lawyer in the firm with that client. For lawyers who would like to do pro bono legal work, but do not wish to strain administrative and staff resources within their firms, volunteering for a summary legal advice clinic may be ideal. This allows the lawyer to set regular but limited hours at a clinic, without taking responsibility for the subsequent legal work or court appearances.
Pro bono is demanding, but need not be overwhelming. Consider the possibilities.