The Rise of Pro Bono

A 150th Anniversary Feature

By Lynn M. Kelly, Executive Director, City Bar Justice Center 

Prior to the 1970s, “pro bono” as a term was not in standard use in the legal profession. The Legal Aid Society had been set  up in 1876 to assist German immigrants in New York, expanding in 1889 to serve all, and important legal work had been  performed from time to time without compensation by lawyers, including members of the City Bar. In 1942, in what might  now be seen as a prototype of the modern pro bono clinic, the “War Committee of the Bar of the City of New York,”  supported by multiple bar associations and managed by the City Bar, was set up to provide free legal advice to men being  inducted into the army.
It was in the 1960s and 70s that the widespread notion began to take hold that providing pro bono legal services to the poor was an obligation of  every lawyer. This shift in the legal profession paralleled the wider shifts in American culture, as younger members persuaded the leaders of their  profession that equal access to justice required the systematic providing of legal services to those who couldn’t afford to pay for them.
These young City Bar members suggested “that the City Bar sponsor a public-interest law firm to be staffed with salaried attorneys and funded  by levies drawn on the large firms,” and in 1976, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) was founded to “increase legal services to  the poor through screening and channeling public law opportunities to participating large law firms.” Among its founders were three City Bar  Presi­dents: Cyrus R. Vance, Sr. (1974-76), Adrian W. Dewind (1976-1978), and Francis T.P. Plimpton (1968-70).
In 1984, in the face of cuts by the federal government in funding legal services for the poor, a second pro bono organiza­tion, Volunteers of Legal  Service (VOLS), was founded.
In 1987, the City Bar created the Community Outreach Law Program (COLP), which won awards and became a national model for bar  associations seeking to provide legal clinics for the poor.
In 1988, the City Bar’s Committee on Legal Problems of the Homeless wrote a lengthy report calling for changes to reduce homelessness, and in  1989 filed an amicus brief in the successful Jiggetts v. Grinker appeal challenging the inadequa­cy of the public assistance shelter allowance. In  1991, with the Project on the Homeless, COLP helped create a weekly clinic to provide free onsite legal counseling to the homeless population.  The Legal Clinic for the Homeless lives on at the City Bar Justice Center, sending volunteers from law firms, corporate legal departments, and  Columbia Law School into family shelters in New York City.
In 1991, the City Bar started Monday Night Law, with teams of volunteer attorneys counseling low- and moderate-income clients with civil legal  problems. That project continues, with volunteers serving over 1,000 clients a year with a free in-person consultation with an attorney.
Prior to 9/11, no segment of the civil justice sector in New York City was experienced in mobilizing volunteer resources on a mass scale. The  families of the victims needed immediate legal help to obtain expedited death certificates; file health and life insurance claims; obtain workers  compensation, Social Security, and other survivors’ benefits; and navigate Surrogates’ Court. All segments of the legal profession in New York  came together, coordinated by the City Bar, and forged a mass-disaster, legal-response model. In 2006, the City Bar Fund’s pro bono services  were renamed the City Bar Justice Center, and its pro bono disaster-response model was employed to help victims following Hurricane Katrina,  Superstorm Sandy, and Hurricane Maria, and became a model for relief efforts around the country. 
Today, the Justice Center runs the largest civil legal hotline in New York State and trains and guides pro bono attorneys from law firms and a  growing number of corporate legal departments in over a dozen programs, helping over 25,000 people a year by leveraging over $15 million  worth of pro bono legal services. These programs adapt to the challenges of the times, and they work in tandem with the City Bar’s programs  and policy initiatives.
Underpinning the practice of pro bono is the premise that facing bankruptcy, deportation, or the loss of one’s home can be as devastating to a  person’s life as a criminal conviction. That’s why the City Bar has put its policy apparatus to work advocating for a right to counsel for people facing the loss  of essential human needs. In 2014, the City Bar commissioned research showing that a national immigration federal public defender system could  pay for itself through savings on detention, foster care, and transportation. And in 2016, the City Bar issued a report and written testimony in  support of a right to counsel in Housing Court for low-income New York City tenants subject to eviction or foreclosure proceedings, which  became law in 2017.
The Justice Center’s pro bono programs will continue to evolve and respond to the gaps in the justice system and the interests of the New York  legal community. We predict more clinics, more firm and corporate lawyers working together, more unbundled services, more courthouse- and  community-based projects, more technology to bring services to people wherever they are, and more access to justice. Pro bono is alive and well  on the 150th anniversary of the City Bar, and here’s to many more years of collaboration. As former City Bar President Conrad Harper said,  “If our heart as an association is in the profession, our soul is in pro bono work.”