Archive for September, 2010

Mandatory Pro Bono in Mississippi?

The Rules Committee of the Mississippi Supreme Court is currently considering the adoption of a rule requiring lawyers to complete 20 pro bono hours annually or in lieu of that service contribute $500 to the state bar for legal services programs.

According to Justice Jess Dickinson, “the overriding objective is to make sure every Mississippian, regardless of economic status, has reasonable access to justice and that no one is excluded because he or she doesn’t have money to hire attorney.”  Recent research, commissioned by the state’s Supreme Court, found that thousands of Mississipians, like their low-income counterparts across the country, are prevented from accessing civil legal assistance because they cannot afford to hire an attorney.

The committee has received 64 letters received thus far regarding the proposed pro bono requirement, the majority of which oppose the adoption of a mandatory requirement.  An article in the Clarion Ledger shared comments from several Mississippi attorneys on both sides of the debate:

Don Lacy criticized the proposal as

an unprecedented and unjustifiable unilateral extension of the authority of the court. . . . [o]ther than perhaps the priesthood, I am unaware of any profession which requires its members, as a condition of their right to practice their craft, to contribute a portion of their income to charity.

The President of the Jackson County Bar Association, Jessica Dupont, said that while her association’s members are “‘[doing] what they can to help the poor’ . . .  a mandatory pro bono rule would be unfair and demeaning to the legal profession.”

On the other side of the debate, a young Jackson attorney’s perspective:

I understand the argument, doubtlessly voiced by many of my colleagues, that no one should be required to provide what is, in essence, community service.  Fundamentally, I agree. But the fact is that attorneys are different. That distinction exists as both an honor, and sometimes, a burden.  But under either instance, it is a badge that each member of the Bar should wear proudly.

Another supporter of the mandatory pro bono requirement, lawyer and member of the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services Board of Directors J. Lane Greenlee of Winona, believes that for at least the initial five years of the rule the requirement should be reduced to 10 hours/year.

I understand those who do not like to be told what to do, but I also am very aware of the need that exists, said Greenlee.

The blogosphere has been abuzz during the last week with commentary surrounding the proposed rule:  WSJ Blog (is the requirement legal?), Simple Justice (even mandatory pro bono not going to solve the need for civil legal services), Professor Richard Epstein’s take, and Build a Solo Practice (revisits issue of Illinois’s adoption last year of mandatory pro bono reporting).

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A Deferred Law Firm Associate Wraps Up His Public Service Experience

Andrew Ardinger was one of many law school Class-of-2009 grads whose career path took an interesting turn when the law firm he was bound for – in his case, Orrick – deferred his start date.  Ardinger made great use of his time, spending the past 12 months with the Public Interest Law Project in Oakland.  Periodically during this past year, Ardinger contributed short update pieces to the American Lawyer, offering  a check-in about his public-service experience.  As he is preparing to return to BigLaw world, Ardinger penned a final piece looking back upon his time with PILP

 Now that I’m in the waning days of this fellowship, and I start to reflect on it, I keep coming back to the same thought: It’s been a great experience for me on a number of levels.

On a professional development level…this experience has been outstanding. As I have noted before, there are only six attorneys in the office, and one legal assistant. It was a very warm, genial work environment, and the two attorneys with whom I worked most closely were, from the first day, obviously committed to mentoring me and helping me develop as an attorney.

The PSLawNet Blog has been closely following the phenomenon of deferred associates taking temporary, public-service placements.  It’s a classic “on one hand, on the other” scenario.  So…on one hand, the public interest lawyer who lives inside of us finds these developments to be very beneficial, for at least a couple of reasons:

  1. The main reason is this: the concern ultimately has to be for the clients.  Nonprofit law offices were hit hard by the recession.  This caused tremendous difficulties for the staff, and for law students who were seeking to begin their career in this arena (we’ll get back to this in a moment).  But it’s the low- and middle-income client communities that were hit hardest.  And the reduced service capacity which the recession caused in many public interest shops meant that fewer clients could be served even as their numbers were increasing.  Deferred associates were able to shore up – and in some cases, expand – service capacity.  That’ s huge, and it came at a critical moment.
  2. Also, the public interest community benefits by forging strong relationships with the private bar.  Quite aside from pro bono work, money flows from the private bar to the public interest bar.  And in myriad other ways, law firms leverage their resources to support public interest work.  So if dozens, or maybe even hundreds, of today’s deferred associates have positive experiences during their public service placements,  they may become tomorrow’s pro bono advocates, board members, and financial supporters.  That’s a win-win.

But there is “on the other hand,” too.  PSLawNet’s mission is to support public-service minded law students and attorneys in achieving their professionals goals.  And it has been undoubtedly frustrating for many students and grads who want to commit their careers to public interest work to see the desks at public interest offices temporarily occupied by deferred associates who were there until business picked up at the firm.  To boot, many of the associates were living on firm-provided stipends which comfortably outpaced public interest salaries.  It is very difficult to measure how much of a “displacement effect” was caused by the deferred associate phenomenon, because frankly very few public interest organizations were in strong enough financial positions to hire new attorneys anyway (at least back in the throes of the recession).  Nevertheless, it was a daunting obstacle for those students who wanted to earn to a low salary in order to fight for those on society’s margins.

We suspect that as the legal economy emerges from the recession, it’ll make something of a return to the pre-recession “normal.”  Law firms will adjust staffing models to match business needs.  Public interest funding will stabilize gradually.  Now, there is discussion these days about whether a longer-term service model might emerge from the deferral model – something akin to the “loaned associate” programs that presently exist between law firms and public interest organizations.  Nevertheless, the prospects of those on public interest career paths feeling crowded out by their law-firm bound peers are diminishing.

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A.G. Holder to Senate: Let's Get Moving on Judicial Appointments

Attorney General Eric Holder penned an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post, urging the Senate to avoid stalling on votes for nominees to the federal bench.  He recounts the story of a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee whose Senate vote was held up for nearly 300 days despite her having the support of both home-state senators and the Senate Juciciary Committee.  When the vote finally did take place, the nomination breezed through.

Further, according to Holder:

Today, 23 judicial nominees — honest and qualified men and women eager to serve the cause of justice — are enduring long delays while awaiting up-or-down votes, even though 16 of them received unanimous bipartisan approval in the Judiciary Committee. The confirmation process is so twisted in knots that we are losing ground — there are more vacancies today than when President Obama took office. The men and women whose confirmations have been delayed have received high marks from the nonpartisan American Bar Association, have the support of their home-state senators (including Republicans), and have received little or no opposition in committee.

Last year, 259,000 civil cases and 75,000 criminal cases were filed in the federal courts, enough to tax the abilities of the judiciary even when it is fully staffed. But today there are 103 judicial vacancies — nearly one in eight seats on the bench. Men and women who need their day in court must stand in longer and longer lines.

The problem is about to get worse. Because of projected retirements and other demographic changes, the number of annual new vacancies in the next decade will be 33 percent greater than in the past three decades. If the historic pace of Senate confirmations continues, one third of the federal judiciary will be vacant by 2020. If we stay on the pace that the Senate has set in the past two years — the slowest pace of confirmations in history — fully half the federal judiciary will be vacant by 2020.

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Prosecutor Misconduct at the DOJ . . .

Federal judges have found 201 cases of DOJ proscecutors violating the law and/or ethics rules between 1998-2010.  USA Today’s foray into prosecutor misconduct reveals that “the abuses have put innocent people in prison, set guilty people free and cost tax payers millions of dollars in legal fees and sanctions.”

With help from legal experts and former prosecutors, USA TODAY spent six months examining federal prosecutors’ work, reviewing legal databases, department records and tens of thousands of pages of court filings. Although the true extent of misconduct by prosecutors will likely never be known, the assessment is the most complete yet of the scope and impact of those violations.

Although acknowledging that the instances of misconduct or negligence are not broadly representative of the federal prosecution community, the story paints a picture of increasingly faltering work from prosecutors who are either overworked, under-supervised, or willing to break the rules in order to win.

Records from the Justice Department’s internal ethics watchdogs show the agency has investigated a growing number of complaints by judges about misconduct they observed. In 2001, the department investigated 42 such complaints; last year, 61.

The department will not reveal how many of those prosecutors were punished because, it said, doing so would violate their privacy rights. USA TODAY, drawing on state bar records, identified only one federal prosecutor who was barred even temporarily from practicing law for misconduct during the past 12 years.

Keep reading . . .

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Public Interest News Bulletin – September 24, 2010

This week: cold, hard cash for debt-laden prosecutors and public defenders; USA Today smacks down US Attorneys; legal services funding needed in the Lonestar State; four years in jail without a trial because the state can’t fund a public defense; LSC’s doing some financial oversight; law students aiding servicemembers who are about to be deployed (well done!); mandatory pro bono for Mississippi lawyers(?); legal services funding found for the Lonestar State (good timing!); national poverty data are out, and opponents of poverty are not going to like the news; the strain on legal services in Tennessee; LSC’s looking for a president; do prosecutors wield too much power at the expense of judges?   

  • 9.23.10 – the Blog of the Legal Times reports that long overdue funds from the John R. Justice Act, a loan repayment program for prosecutors and public defenders authorized in 2008, will finally begin flowing to beneficiaries throughout the nation.
  • 9.22.10 – USA Today has run an analysis piece – yes, its’ a USA Today story longer than two paragraphs! – on the state of ethics among federal prosecutors nationally, concluding that “prosecutors repeatedly have violated that duty in courtrooms across the nation. The abuses have put innocent people in prison, set guilty people free and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and sanctions.”  Although acknowledging that the instances of misconduct or negligence are not broadly representative of the federal prosecution community, the story paints a picture of increasingly faltering work from prosecutors who are either overworked, under-supervised, or willing to break the rules in order to win.  (Also, Main Justice, an independent news organization which covers all things related to the Justice Department, picked up on the USA Today report.) 
  • 9.22.10 – in the Cherokeean Herald of Texas, state supreme court justice Nathan L. Hecht reviews the recession’s impact on low-income Texans, highlights the dramatic declines civil legal services funding that limit providers’ ability to serve a swelling client base, and calls on the state legislature to once again appropriate funding in support of legal services.
  • 9.19.10 – Mississippi’s Clarion Ledger reports on a proposal being considered by the state’s high court “that would require lawyers to provide at least 20 hours of free service to the poor each year.”  There is debate within both the Mississippi bar and the legal blogosphere (see this Wall Street Journal Law Blog post) about whether or not traditional volunteer service can/should be made compulsory.   This question stems from the release of a report, The Unmet Civil Needs of Low-Income Mississippians, by the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission.  The report outlined “difficulties people encounter in gaining access to civil legal representation….  Between a third and half of those who apply for legal aid are turned away….  About 550,000 poor people are eligible for services, and about 30 legal services attorneys are available in Mississippi.”   The mandatory pro bono requirement doesn’t appear to be a specific recommendation made in the report, but rather one among many options the Supreme Court is considering to narrow the justice gap.   Here’s a Clarion Ledger article on the report’s release
  • 9.15.10 – the Chattanooga Times Free Press runs a thorough story illustrating the strains on Tennessee’s civil legal services system as the number of potential clients increases but funding does not.  “It’s a dilemma that led the Tennessee Supreme Court to announce in late 2008 that fixing the state’s legal aid crisis would become its No. 1 strategic priority. The goal is the same in 2010, with the court recently declaring the lack of access to legal help ‘one of the most pressing issues’ facing Tennessee’s court system.”  The problem boils down to simple numbers; because of funding shortages there are not the means to hire the lawyers necessary to serve all potential clients who face dire legal problems.  “There are only 81 legal aid lawyers who work full time in one of Tennessee’s five legal aid centers. Twenty-seven work for Legal Aid of East Tennessee, serving a client base of 300,000 out of the approximately 1 million residents statewide whose low incomes qualify them for free legal help.  It means the state’s full-time legal aid lawyers every year wind up accepting only one in five cases brought by people seeking their services, a Tennessee Supreme Court study found.”
  • 9.13.10 – the Blog of the Legal Times reports that the Legal Services Corporation’s search for a new president continues.  According to John Levi, the LSC board chair, “‘We’re looking for a lawyer who has first-rate management skills. But we’re also looking for someone who understands the needs that are out there and isn’t afraid of them,’ Levi said. ‘We view this is a great opportunity for the LSC.’  Levi said that the LSC search committee will likely draw about eight or 12 candidates from the pool of applicants and select the next president from there. He said he and the other board members would like to see a president in place by the beginning of next year.”
  • 9.10.10 – in an Anchorage Daily News opinion piece, former Alaska attorney general John Havelock notes that prosecutors, who shoulder enormous responsibilities in the operation of the justice system, also have extraordinary power that can be dangerous to the system if it is unchecked.  Havelock supports political appointments of prosecutors rather than elections because “campaign contributions lay a hand on the scale of justice.”  He also supports “enhancing the discretionary power of the judiciary” so that prosecutors do not wield so much influence in all facets of criminal proceedings, from charging decisions through sentencing.

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Penn State Law School Takes Human Rights to the Tube!

“What?” is what you’re asking.  We couldn’t think of a pithy blog title so we went with alluringly vague.

Penn State Law School is rolling out a TV series that will feature legal luminaries and human rights experts staging mock trials to introduce all kinds of audiences – from high-school students to practitioners – to some of the thornier human rights issues being debated today.

From the Centre Daily Times of central Pennsylvania:

Penn State Law School created the series in partnership with the School of International Affairs and Penn State Public Broadcasting. The goal is to stage mock trials that examine complex international human rights issues. The episodes will be broadcast by WPSU and available to schools around the world to use in their classes.

Penn State law faculty member Randall Robinson, creator of the show, said he thought it would be a good way to use compelling television to bring complex issues that aren’t closely followed by the general public to the public.

The idea is to present the program to juries around the world and promote discussions about the cases and the verdicts. Background information will be available on the Web, and plans are being developed to add educational material to the web-site that could be used in high school and college classes.

The pilot episode of “World on Trial” features Cherie Booth Blair (wife of former British Prime Minister Tony “Mr. T” Blair, and a renowned lawyer in her own right) as a judge, and Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree.  The trial focuses on whether a French ban on head scarves in public schools interferes with rights to free expression.

This sounds like a terrific idea to us, particularly if Penn State is able to develop supplementary educational resources that would aid younger students in following the issues at trial.

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Cy Pres Windfall for Disabilities Rights Advocates in Texas Legal Services Community

Last week the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, along with five legal services organizations that do disabilities rights advocacy, received a record $2.6 million in cy pres funds left over from a class action in the Lonestar State.  The class action suit itself was a disabilities rights case; plaintiffs argued that a requirement that disabled Texans pay for their own blue disability parking cards – the kinds that are displayed by drivers when they park – violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Even better news for disabilities rights advocates is that the $2.6 million flowing into the legal services community is only a fraction of a larger $9 million+, the balance of which will go to other nonprofits serving those with disabilities.  Here’s a press release from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, and here’s coverage in the San Antonio Business Journal.

For those law students wondering about how much cy pres awards help the civil legal services community, the answer is that they can be tremendous boons in terms of allowing organizations to shore up or to expand their services – which may include hiring new lawyers (hint, hint).  On the other hand, cy pres awards are unpredictable, and thus can not be relied upon as consistent revenue streams.  We’ve covered some past instances of cy pres awards benefiting legal services providers, including this recent development in Maryland, and a cy pres award in California.

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One in Seven Americans Live Below the Poverty Line

One in seven Americans (or approximately 44 million of your fellow U.S. citizens) are living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s recently released report on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States.  What is the historical significance of this statistic? . . .  In 2009, there were more Americans living in poverty than in any year since 1959, the first year poverty estimates were available. 

Last year, the family poverty rate was 11.8%  and the number of families in poverty was 8.8 million – this was an increase from 10.3% and 8.1 million, respectively, in 2008.   This increase in the poverty rate was seen across all types of families (married-couple, female-householder-with-no-husband-present, and male-householder-no-wife-present).   The growth in the number of children living in poverty is especially troubling:  15.5 million children were living below the poverty line in 2009, compared to 14.1 million in the 2008.

Poverty advocates believe that federal stimulus efforts that targeted low-income earners and the extension of unemployment benefits prevented what could have been an even greater increase in the poverty rate.

For additional reactions to the Census report check out The Washington Post’s article, National Public Radio’s coverage, and a Huffington Post article by Maria Foscarinis,  the Executive Director and Founder of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

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Call for Proposals: 2011 Equal Justice Conference

The 2011 Equal Justice Conference, cosponsored by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and the ABA, will take place in San Francisco from May 19-21. The conference is attended by attorneys and other advocates in the legal services community, the pro bono community, as well as those from law schools and the bench.

The conference planners have issued a request for program proposals. Here are the guidelines and procedures for submitting a proposal, and here is the online proposal submission form. The proposal deadline is October 8, 2010.

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$100 Million Gift to Human Rights Watch Will Lead to 120 New Jobs

We know that many public-interest minded law students and attorneys are interested in opportunities in international human rights work.  So we figured we’d pass along word that a recently announced gift from George Soros will lead to Human Rights Watch considerably expanding its staff – “adding more than 120 employees to a an organization of 300.”

The gift, according to the Washington Post, is also expected to begin a change in the way that HRW builds support – financial and otherwise – for its activities throughout the global community.  Rather than leaning so heavily on donations from U.S. and European sources, HRW wishes to expand its support base:

The Human Rights Watch gift will consist of $10 million annual grants over the next decade. Human Rights Watch is expected to find funding to match that grant. It is also seeking to cultivate a new generation of foreign donors to fund the group’s activities. Today, Human Rights Watch receives 30 percent of its funding from abroad, mostly from Europe and some from Japan. It has a target of raising 40 percent of its funding from abroad within five years and 50 percent within a decade.

On a related note, here are two PSLawNet resources for law students and lawyers searching for international public-interest jobs:

  1.  Finding Jobs with the UN and other International Organizations
  2. Finding and Funding International Public Service Opportunities

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