By Charles F. Otey, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Few issues have rankled so broadly throughout the legal fraternity in New York state as the proposal that practicing barristers must perform 50 hours of pro bono service to the indigent and should contribute financially to worthwhile legal services organizations.
Oh, I needn’t remind readers that the ultimate goal of Chief Judge Jon Lippman is to make the amount of lawyers’ contributions a matter of public record, and available to anyone who cares to look!
The most polite lawyer I know thought these requirements could be “onerous and embarrassing and even worse!”
Some bar leaders feel they have little choice but to sit back and watch the potentially demoralizing initiative unfold, refraining from any public comment even though they seriously question the wisdom of these new ideas.
This is not so for Brooklyn Bar Association President Andy Fallek. Pro Bono Barrister recently presented some of President Fallek’s views offered in the February issue of the Brooklyn Barrister. Actually, he had more to say more in a moderate tone than the biting critiques offered by many engaged in an active legal practice.
“For some time” he noted, “Rule 6.1 of Title 22 NYCRR Part 1200 the Rules of Professional Conduct has told us that ‘Lawyers are strongly encouraged to provide pro bono legal services to benefit poor persons’ and suggested 20 hours of pro bono work. As of May 1, 2013, OCA has upped the encouragement considerably.
“Now, Rule 6.1 provides: a. Every lawyer should aspire to (1) Provide at least 50 hours legal services each year to poor persons; and (2) Contribute financially to organizations that provide legal services to poor persons.”
In addition, noted the BBA leader, “Lawyers in private practice or employed by a for-profit entity should aspire to contribute annually in an amount at least equivalent to.... the amount typically billed by the lawyer or the firm for which the lawyer is associated for one hour of time.”
What about lawyers – especially the negligence bar -- who work on contingency fees? According to Fallek’s presentation of the new rules, “If the lawyer’s work is performed on a contingency basic, the amount [to be contributed is that which is] typically billed by lawyers in the community for one hour of time ... [or] the amount typically paid by the organization employing the lawyer for one hour of the lawyer’s income.”
Considering that the legal profession is in the midst of one of its greatest existential crises in the last half century, how would attorneys with dwindling practices determine their expected contribution? Here, Fallek cites part of the applicable rule which says that “...if the lawyer is underemployed ... [they should pay] ... an amount not to exceed one-tenth of one percent of the lawyer’s income.”
Brooklyn Bar Answering Call To Serve Needy
President Fallek emphasizes that there is a true need for lawyers to help the poor. He has long served as a board member of the BBA’s highly regarded Volunteer Lawyers Project, which has aided tens of thousands in over two decades of service. He cites as well two other BBA programs that provide matrimonial legal support and counsel to pro se litigants.
Like many other concerned New York state attorneys, he is worried lest the “good feeling” attendant to helping needy “clients” is “dissipated when you are told how much [money] to give.”
Appropriately, he observes that the “ question at play is not whether the poor need help but rather whether we as lawyers should be singled out to solve the legal problems of the indigent?”