Friday, Oct. 23, 2009 | 3 a.m.
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As the state’s lawyers gather next week to honor those who do pro bono work, fewer Nevada attorneys are donating their services even though demand for free or low-cost legal aid is skyrocketing.
The Nevada Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission and the State Bar of Nevada are holding their inaugural celebration of National Pro Bono Week to recognize contributions by legal professionals and highlight resources for those in need.
The decline in pro bono work is no surprise given the recession.
In 2008, 2,127 attorneys donated 73,516 hours of free legal service, according to the State Bar, which requires attorneys to report pro bono work. That is down from 2,399 attorneys donating 91,917 hours in 2007 and 2,191 attorneys donating 93,394 hours in 2006.
The number of actively licensed attorneys increased from 6,951 in 2006 to 7,739 in 2008.
Legal aid at reduced rates is also down. The State Bar said 850 attorneys gave 56,000 hours of subsidized service in 2008, down from 970 attorneys giving 64,000 such hours in 2007.
“Obviously the legal profession is part of the business community, and many lawyers are facing hard times as well,” said Kathleen England, president of the State Bar. “It is not easy for lawyers to make that contribution and take time off from fee-generating cases. It is not anybody’s fault that they have to make a living in these tough times.”
Despite a slowdown in contributions, England said attorneys should be applauded for what they are doing. Accountants, doctors and other professionals don’t donate their time as attorneys do, she said. In addition, she said attorneys doing pro bono work likely undercount the number of hours.
“We can continue to encourage and applaud people able to do it, and point out it is the right thing to do,” England said.
In addition to attorneys in private practice who do pro bono work, legal-aid organizations throughout the state employ 57 lawyers (who earn one-third of the money that their brethren in private practice earn), to help women and children in need, seniors and families living in poverty. The organizations help people with civil matters such as landlord/tenant disputes, victims of domestic violence and children who need representation.
The need for legal aid is high, according to a 2008 civil legal needs assessment by the Supreme Court’s commission. There are only enough resources to help less than 20 percent of those who qualify.
Statewide, there is one legal-aid attorney for every 5,000 people living in poverty.
Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice James Hardesty said since the report was done in 2008, the need has likely grown because of the number of foreclosures and other economic woes, including debt collection.
“The demand so far exceeds the capability of the legal-aid organizations to respond, and it has highlighted the importance of pro bono legal services,” Hardesty said. “All you need to do is spend a half-hour in the office of legal-aid organizations to see how big the demand is.”
A change in a rule dealing with attorneys’ use of trust accounts will go a long way to help dealing with the demand, Hardesty said. Attorneys are required to keep trust funds in accounts that pay interest and transfer that money to the Nevada Law Foundation, which uses the proceeds for legal aid. Previously, it was voluntary.
Before, that fund varied from $300,000 to $600,000 a year. That account now has more than $1 million available for legal-aid organizations whose lawyers are trained to deal with the cases that come to them, he said.
“There is no question this increases the capability of the legal-aid organizations to address the problems,” Hardesty said.
Since the report came out, a number of law firms have pledged thousands of hours of service to meet the needs, and Hardesty said he hopes that commitment is realized when 2009 pro bono work is reported in January.
The reporting is required because it gives the legal community a sense of who is participating and what can be done to respond to the legal needs across the state, Hardesty said.
The study showed that Nevada’s geography — with its expansive rural landscape — made it difficult for people in rural areas to be represented because most large law firms are in urban areas.
That was one reason behind the Supreme Court initiating a rule enabling attorneys in civil cases to appear by telephone or video conference at many hearings. The state has even provided phone equipment and in some cases grants for audiovisual equipment to create a way for urban lawyers to provide pro bono services in rural areas without having to drive hundreds of miles, Hardesty said.
“It is working,” Hardesty said. “There has been a tremendous reception by attorneys as well as judges handling the cases.”
Pro bono work has an advantage in preparing lawyers for their careers, said Hardesty, who said he encourages young lawyers to be active. It provides a great opportunity for young lawyers to get work experience by taking on more complex cases they wouldn’t normally handle in their firm’s general caseload, he said.
The Supreme Court has recently set up a program asking for volunteers to represent those who don’t have an attorney in cases before the high court. It is rare for young attorneys to have such an opportunity to write briefs and to give oral arguments before the Supreme Court, he said.
“Those experiences are invaluable, and attorneys recognize that,” Hardesty said. “We have been compiling a list of volunteers willing to accept those kinds of assignments, and I have been impressed.”
Although the issue has come up before, Hardesty said he would not be in favor of attorneys being required to donate a certain number of pro bono hours. That would be difficult to enforce, especially because attorneys may have medical and other issues keeping them from doing so, he said.
“No other profession requires such to hold their license, and why are we expected to do the same?” Hardesty said. “What we can do is continue our efforts to increase volunteer service. We have made progress, but the problem has worsened (with the demand for legal services).”