The week of October 22-28 is National Pro Bono Week. When people think of attorneys, they probably don’t think of pro bono work, but a pro bono ethic is built right into the fabric of the legal profession.

The phrase, “pro bono” is actually short for, “pro bono publico” meaning “for the public good.” In English, we generally shorten the phrase to “pro bono” (according to Merriam-Webster). Pro bono chiefly refers to legal services provided at no charge for clients with insufficient income to retain an attorney.

The Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct in the state of Illinois, as in all fifty states, encourage pro bono work. Many, if not most, attorneys take this encouragement to heart and make a conscious effort to meet the professional standard of providing services pro bono to people of limited means. Some attorneys go above and beyond.

In the preamble to the Supreme Court Rules, attorneys are described as officers of the legal system and public citizens having a special responsibility for the quality of justice. The preamble charges attorney’s with a duty to uphold the integrity of the legal process and to, “further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system.”

The Supreme Court Rules also make this remarkable statement that applies to all attorneys:

“It is also 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… Service in the public interest may take many forms. These include but are not limited to pro bono representation of persons unable to pay for legal services and assistance to the organized Bar’s efforts at law reform.”

While individual attorneys sometimes fall short of those ideals, those are the stated benchmarks of conduct for all attorneys in the state of Illinois. Every Supreme Court in every state in the land has a similar standard for the attorneys licensed in those jurisdictions. The provision of pro bono services is woven into the fabric of what it means to be a legal professional.

That idea may have been behind the famous Shakespearian quotation, “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.” Those words were spoken by Dick the Butcher in Henry VI Part II, Act IV Scene II.

People take this quotation out of context. On its face, it seems like a slam against lawyers, but it’s just the opposite. Dick the Butcher is an unsavory character, a member of a band of rebels who want to take the throne. He aptly recognized that attorneys who are sworn officers of the court and upholders of the system of justice stand in the way of unlawful attempts to commandeer the justice system for one’s own ends.

Lawyers are sworn to uphold the law as officers of the court and defenders of the legal justice system. Lawyers defend and protect peoples’ civil rights and freedoms. Lawyers are sworn to uphold the process of justice. Without lawyers, the Wild West would prevail (or people like Dick the Butcher). 

While lawyers generally have a bad reputation, that reputation is earned by the minority. The majority of attorneys I know are honorable men and women of integrity who take their roles in providing legal justice seriously. Many attorneys are generous with their time, taking the Supreme Court ideal to heart. In spite of a human tendency to exalt self-interest, most attorneys recognize their professional status carries with it a moral obligation to provide free legal services to people who need them.

Indeed, the whole purpose of the Supreme Court standard at the very beginning of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the purpose behind celebrating Pro Bono Week, and the purpose of this very article, is to encourage mindfulness of that standard.

We need reminders to put aside self-interest and help others who are vulnerable and unable to help themselves, to help others who do not have the same position of privilege in society. In that vein, I encourage anyone reading this article who is not an attorney to ask the attorneys you know about pro bono services – not for yourselves – for others. Ask them how they are carrying out their professional responsibilities.

The public has a right to expect the legal profession and the individual attorneys to uphold the standard with which we are charged. You have a right to expect us to act like officers of the court, attending to the integrity of the legal process and providing pro bono services to people who cannot afford the legal services that they need.

At the same time, while attorneys give of their time and their resources to organizations like Administer Justice and Prairie State Legal Services, I ask that you consider banding together with the attorneys, judges, paralegals and other members of the legal system to give of your resources to those organizations that are delivering legal services to the vulnerable and needy people in our communities.

 

 

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