In a year in which the legal profession faced unprecedented challenges, lawyers across North Carolina not only continued to provide access to justice for the less fortunate, but even managed to substantially increase the amount of pro bono legal services they provided, a new report shows.
The North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center recently released its annual report documenting the amount of pro bono work logged in by the state’s attorneys, and center officials are pleased by the findings. More than 1,300 lawyers reported offering nearly 68,000 hours of free legal assistance in 2020, which is 18,570 hours more than were reported in 2019. Of those lawyers, 589 were inducted into the North Carolina Pro Bono Honor Society after performing at least 50 hours, a threshold encouraged by the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby praised the volunteers for recognizing the needs of those who might otherwise go without legal representation.
“The Supreme Court of North Carolina looks forward to celebrating the sincere efforts of North Carolina lawyers in pursuit of equal justice for all,” Newby wrote in a release.
Of more than 29,000 licensed attorneys, 1,648—or 5.56 percent—responded to the survey. That number is down slightly from the previous year, but nearly every other metric increased.
“We have reports from 39 of 44 judicial districts, which I believe is an expression of the statewide adoption of this process five years in,” said Jared Smith, foundation and development manager for the resource center, a program of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission. “And the increased number of hours is an expression of people really stepping up during the pandemic.”
Not every respondent reported providing free legal services—hundreds either provided legal services at substantially reduce fees, performed other forms of community service, or made financial contributions to legal service providers. Some participated in activities that support justice more broadly but fall outside the scope of pro bono work, such as serving as a CLE instructor, mediating or arbitrating, or engaging in legislative lobbying to improve the law, the legal system, or the profession.
Where COVID-19 presented myriad challenges, it could also have contributed to the uptick in pro bono work, Smith said, stoking attorneys’ innate desire to help others by freeing up time and reducing their day-to-day legal commitments. It also may have made pro bono opportunities more accessible by compelling legal service providers to come up with new, creative ways to allow services in a remote context.
Since it was established in 2016, the resource center has sought information to quantify the amount of pro bono work being performed statewide. Each year, Newby emails every North Carolina attorney, with few exceptions, encouraging them to document and report their pro bono hours.
To supplement that communication, the resource center reaches out to partner organizations, state and local bars, and legal service providers, leveraging those connections to help spread the word. Smith said that the organization is pleased with the number of survey responses it receives, but welcomes a fuller picture of the state’s pro bono involvement.
Smith said that some may find daunting the task of documenting a year’s worth of pro bono efforts, but that the resource center is making efforts to ease that burden, including making a downloadable tracking spreadsheet available on the resource center’s website.
Accessibility, Smith said, can be the key to helping lawyers help others.
“Pro bono legal service is the way that lawyers can contribute uniquely,” Smith said. “This is a statewide effort and attorneys are doing great work in a time when that work is challenging.”
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher