The Big 5-0

It is axiomatic that, as attorneys, we have an ethical duty to zealously represent our clients. There is also some self-interest in meeting this important ethical requirement since we all know that an unhappy client is not likely to be a repeat client or serve as a useful referral source. By nature, attorneys focus on serving their own clients and running a business. In doing so, however, it is often difficult to achieve an appropriate balance between our client-driven practice and devoting our time and efforts to providing legal services to those unable to pay.

The public interest, however, benefits greatly when attorneys actively promote access to legal services, particularly those who are most vulnerable. American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rule 6.1 serves as a useful reminder that all attorneys have a professional responsibility to serve those unable to pay for legal services:

“Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”

In fulfilling this responsibility, the lawyer should:

(a) provide a substantial majority of the (50) hours of legal services without fee or expectation of fee to: (1) persons of limited means or (2) charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations in matters which are designed primarily to address the needs of persons of limited means; and

(b) provide any additional services through: (1) delivery of legal services at no fee or substantially reduced fee to individuals, groups or organizations seeking to secure or protect civil rights, civil liberties or public rights, or charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations in matters in furtherance of their organizational purposes, where the payment of standard legal fees would significantly deplete the organization’s economic resources or would be otherwise inappropriate; (2) delivery of legal services at a substantially reduced fee to persons of limited means; or (3) participation in activities for improving the law, the legal system or the legal profession.

In addition, a lawyer should voluntarily contribute financial support to organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means.

Fortunately, opportunities abound for pro bono service in Contra Costa, and many of us are already meeting (and exceeding) our ethical obligations.  In this regard, my partner, Lisa Roberts, is an excellent example.  Lisa is the founder and current member of the Diversity Section of the Contra Costa County Bar Association and has been active in many committees focused on serving underprivileged members of the community, most notably, the “Food from the Bar” committee providing critical support to our local food banks.  She has also been referred cases through Senior Legal Services including handling the trial of one such case on a pro bono basis.

Other members of the community leading by example in the area of pro bono service include Contra Costa County Superior Court Commissioner Judith Sanders (Ret.) and Walnut Creek attorney Gabriella Odell, who spend Tuesday mornings staffing the Senior Self-Help Clinic offered at the Family Law Courthouse in Martinez.

As a Trustee of the Contra Costa County Public Law Library, I would be remiss not to acknowledge and thank members of the Bar who regularly volunteer for the Lawyers in the Library program which provides free legal advice through the public law libraries at the Martinez and Richmond branches. Regular volunteers include Commission Sanders, Marie Barnes, Tom Cain, Sterling Routson-Thomas, Geoffrey Steele, and Phyl Van Ammers, all of whom dedicate their valuable time to assisting the underserved.

Draw inspiration from these and the many other attorneys who devote valuable time to pro bono service, and consider how you too can incorporate pro bono service into your busy practice.  The ABA’s edict of 50 hours per year of pro bono work may seem imposing, but it is there for a reason:  Our services are essential to those in the most need.

And for those members of the Contra Costa County Bar who have retired or are taking a temporary break from the active practice of law, the State Bar’s Pro Bono Practice Program (PBP Program), previously know as the Emeritus Attorney Pro Bono Program, provides an excellent opportunity to maintain your skills through pro bono practice, while also serving California’s neediest residents.  Participants in the PBP Program receive a waiver of the active State Bar membership fee and are afforded additional benefits including to complimentary MCLE programs focusing on pro bono work.  For more information regarding the PBP Program, simply visit the State Bar’s website:  www.calbar.ca.gov.


Nolan Armstrong is a partner at McNamara, Ney, Beatty, Slattery, Borges & Ambacher LLP.  He is a member for the Board of Trustees of the Contra Costa County Public Law Library and Board of Directors of the Association of Defense Counsel of Northern California & Nevada. 

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