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Resource Center seeks to make doing pro bono easier

If you are one of the North Carolina attorneys who rendered at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services in the last year—something that the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct calls all attorneys to aspire to—the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center would like you to toot your own horn about it, just a little, in the hopes of inspiring other attorneys to follow your example.

The PBRC, an initiative of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission, was launched in April 2016 with the mission of increasing attorneys’ pro bono participation as a means of reducing the access to justice gap for low-income North Carolinians.

The commission’s funding comes from a portion of the fees that attorneys pay for each hour of CLE. When those fees were increased a few years ago, that increased the amount of funding available to the commission, which decided to use the extra money to create the PBRC. As it now approaches its second anniversary, those involved with the center say that its efforts are already showing progress towards that goal.

When the commission surveyed North Carolina attorneys in 2014 asking them about challenges they faced when considering whether to do pro bono work, one of the biggest barriers attorneys discussed was time—not just the time of doing to pro bono work itself, but the time and effort needed to identify and properly vet potential pro bono projects. The responses mirrored those from a national survey conducted by the American Bar Association.

One of the center’s main objectives is to make it as easy as possible for attorneys who want to provide more pro bono services to do so, said Sylvia Novinsky, who has been the center’s director since its inception.

“That turned out to be one of the biggest reasons attorneys weren’t getting involved. It’s not that they didn’t want to, but it was a time thing,” Novinsky said. “Either they didn’t get involved, or they didn’t know who to talk to. Reaching out wasn’t always easy. Now what we hope is that lawyers are hearing about pro bono opportunities because someone is reaching out to them.”

One of the PBRC’s main tools for assisting attorneys in those efforts is the clearinghouse available on its website, ncprobono.org. Attorneys can use the website to find vetted pro bono opportunities, and can filter opportunities based on location or a particular area of the law that interests them.

Alyse Young, an attorney at Womble Bond Dickinson in Winston-Salem who graduated from Duke Law School in 2016, says that the PBRC helped connect her with a pro bono project she’s currently working on helping a non-profit organization form a for-profit subsidiary. Young said that Novinsky knew a bit about her background and what her interests are, so when the client contacted Novinsky, she was able to match the client’s needs with Young’s skills and interests and get the two sides connected.

“Often you do the pro bono work that you happen to come across, and I think that the Pro Bono Resource Center gives a more systematic approach to connecting attorneys to pro bono work, which I think is helpful, especially for attorneys who are busy and may not want to have to go look for pro bono work, but who want to take on a project,” Young said.

The center has recently launched its second round of voluntary pro bono reporting, another key plank in its efforts. Attorneys are encouraged to visit the website and report their pro bono involvement. Those who rendered at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services in 2017—the amount that attorneys are expected to provide under Rule 6.1 of the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct—and are willing to be acknowledged for doing so will be inducted into the 2017 North Carolina Pro Bono Honor Society and recognized by the state’s Supreme Court.

Last year 170 attorneys were so honored, but PBRC staff believes that the number of attorneys satisfying the 50-hour obligation is actually quite higher than that and that reporting was lower last year because the center was still very new. The reporting period runs through March 31, and the center believes that the number of attorneys reporting this year should be substantially higher.

“I hope by reporting attorneys recognize that they are role models, and that they are telling the rest of the bar that this is important to me and I do it, and you should too,” Novinsky said. “And I hope that telling their stories, which I hope we’ll do more of, and what they are doing over those 50 hours, can also be inspiring. I hope that people will want to report for a variety of reasons, but I think we should be celebrating their work.”

Attorneys involved with the PBRC said that the center is working closely with law schools and Legal Aid, who have long been the workhorses in providing access to justice to low-income North Carolinians, to complement the work those entities are already doing and fill in gaps where there are still unmet legal needs.

Daniel Bowes, an attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh, said that his organization has partnered with the PBRC on several clinics in Wake County helping to facilitate either the expunction of criminal records or the restoration of revoked driver’s licenses. Bowes said that the PBRC has helped bring people together from different parts of the legal system and increase the number of attorneys who are involved.

“You have to show why [pro bono] matters, so you’re not just going through the motions, and show how you can transform somebody’s life,” Bowers said. “Beyond that, you have to make it so it’s efficient, so that attorneys don’t have to spend so much time, but they only have to spend enough time to provide quality legal services.”

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

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