JUSTICE FOR ALL?
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Chief Justice Ronald Moon of the Hawaii Supreme Court is promoting a campaign to increase access to justice for the needy in Hawaii.
‘Little bit of a guilt trip’ spurs lawyers to donate services
This year, for the first time, lawyers in Hawaii each had to report how many hours they donated in pro bono, or free, legal services annually.
It was not a popular requirement. The Hawaii State Bar Association had weighed in against it. But the state Supreme Court adopted the rule in October, and it took effect as lawyers re-registered to practice law in 2008.
Chief Justice Ronald Moon says he was surprised that the idea was controversial. The new rule does not force lawyers to do volunteer work, just to report their donated hours.
"To be perfectly honest, I was totally disappointed and dismayed," Moon said. "It is perplexing to me that mandatory reporting -- not mandatory pro bono services -- could garner any opposition."
After all, he noted, the lawyers' professional code recommends they donate 50 hours of legal services a year, including 25 hours to "persons of limited means" or groups that serve them. For the past few years, when reporting such hours was voluntary, more than 70 percent of lawyers did not bother to report any pro bono activity.
"We've found by looking at other jurisdictions that the number of pro bono hours has increased with this move, so this is what we're looking forward to," Moon said in an interview.
The new rule is already having an impact. Preliminary estimates show that 3,300 attorneys, nearly 47 percent of the lawyers in Hawaii, reported doing pro bono work last year, up from roughly 27 percent when reporting was voluntary. The total hours nearly doubled to about 200,000.
"Requiring people to report, I suppose there's a little bit of a guilt trip," said Lyn Flanigan, executive director of the Hawaii State Bar Association. "Putting down a zero makes you think, 'What can I do?' And a lot of people did call and say, 'What can I do?'"
This year's form did not break down how much pro bono work went to people who could not afford lawyers, as opposed to those who are friends of the attorneys or charitable or educational nonprofit groups, for example. By next year the registration form will be updated to break out the number of hours given to those who cannot afford legal help.
"It will help us determine where the attorneys are active in providing pro bono services, which would help us focus on areas where there is need," Moon said. "I think the attorneys understand that there is certainly a need, that they need to do more."
Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel LLP, the state's largest law firm, encourages volunteerism by including pro bono work in the billable-hours requirement for its lawyers. David Reber, a corporate lawyer and partner at the firm, served as president of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii for several years and is still on its board.
He said some attorneys are reluctant to take on pro bono cases for fear of "getting caught up in a nightmarish case that goes on forever" or not having background in the field. To get over that hurdle, Legal Aid carefully screens cases it gives to volunteer lawyers, offers training and support, and will even take a case back if it "gets out of hand," he said.
Moon noted that lawyers are not regulated by state boards, unlike other professionals such as doctors, accountants and engineers. Instead the Judiciary itself oversees attorneys.
"We in the legal profession are the only ones allowed to regulate ourselves, which is, indeed, a privilege," he said, "but one that comes with great responsibility."