Oklahoma Bar Journal
Pro Bono as an Ethical Obligation and Opportunity
By Melissa Brooks and Katie Dilks
“Professionalism for lawyers and judges requires honesty, integrity, competence, civility and public service.” – Definition from the Oklahoma Bar Association Standards of Professionalism
Public service and the provision of legal services for those who cannot afford them is a deeply rooted ethical obligation for attorneys. Sections 1.1, 1.3 and 1.5 of the OBA Standards of Professionalism all underscore this obligation and start to highlight the myriad ways it can be meaningfully met. The American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct lay out this expectation as well, in Rule 6.1, stating that lawyers have a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those who cannot afford it and should aspire to contribute at least 50 hours of pro bono service annually.
Law schools regularly educate students on the importance of pro bono, encouraging consistent service through voluntary pro bono pledges – a feature at all three of Oklahoma’s law schools. Why, then, do so few of our attorneys regularly engage in pro bono work? We believe the challenge lies in three primary areas:
- A lack of understanding about the range of ways to help those in need or the most effective ways to make a difference.
- A belief that the practice of law is a zero-sum game and time spent on pro bono is necessarily at the expense of fee-generating work.
- A disconnect between those in need and those who can help.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRO BONO LEGAL SERVICES
At the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation, we endeavor to address all these points in meaningful ways. One tactic is education around the range of pro bono needs and opportunities. Many attorneys believe the only way to help is by volunteering to take on a full-representation case, often in family law and often seemingly interminable. While it is true that Oklahoma lacks sufficient resources for low-income individuals facing family law needs, these cases are just a fraction of the kind of work attorneys can take on to improve the lives of their neighbors. Many people need assistance in areas well suited for limited-scope services, such as wills preparation, representation in eviction court, assistance with benefits applications or appeals and title clearing. Additionally, even in areas of family law, limited-scope services are often incredibly valuable. The Pro Se Waiver Divorce Clinic in Oklahoma County is an excellent example of the impact limited assistance can have in helping litigants ensure their documents are correctly prepared.
There are also opportunities to help organizations that serve low-income and underserved populations. Assisting with contracts, governance, employment law and the other day-to-day legal needs of nonprofits is another way to provide pro bono service and positively impact our state.
Secondly, we often hear that there just aren’t enough hours in the day, or a firm cannot afford to do more pro bono work. While we all wish more time was available, increasingly, firms can’t afford not to invest in pro bono. As we mentioned earlier, law students are being supported in developing a habit and expectation of pro bono service, and it is a critical question many ask when looking for post-graduate employment. Developing a robust pro bono program is an excellent recruitment tool, and it is effective as a retention strategy as well. A new survey from Major, Lindsey & Africa found that a meaningful number of Generation Z law students and recent graduates would leave an employer if they felt their values were not aligned with the work, and incorporating pro bono service can be an effective way to address that concern. The same survey found that 61% of respondents ranked pro bono as very or somewhat important when assessing a potential employer.
Research has found that employees are more engaged at work when they feel connected to a broader mission or purpose, have opportunities to learn and grow, are recognized for their work and can use their strengths. Pro bono service can help address all these engagement factors, leading to higher retention rates and more engaged and productive teams. It can also function as a critical professional development tool for younger attorneys or those looking to build new skill sets. A firm may not have the ability to put a junior associate on an important deposition, but ensuring they can gain those skills through a pro bono case can be a win-win for the firm and the lawyer.
Finally, many corporate clients are increasingly expecting volunteerism to be a standard part of their outside counsel’s approach and commitment. Major corporations will even partner with firms on pro bono projects. Investing in pro bono helps raise a firm’s profile with existing and potential clients and opens new chances for networking and engagement.
Even when attorneys understand the need for pro bono and are motivated to provide those services, there can still be an obstacle in connecting with an organization to volunteer. That’s why, in 2020, the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation started our statewide pro bono portal: okprobono.org. It’s a one-stop shop for potential volunteers to browse opportunities from over a dozen organizations across the state and volunteer with the click of a button.
When you are providing pro bono service, it’s important that you maintain the ethical obligations expected of all attorneys, particularly competence, honesty, professionalism, civility and unbiased professional conduct. Fortunately, there are many ways to fulfill your ethical obligation while effectively serving your community.
ETHICS OF PRO BONO LEGAL SERVICES
The OBA Standards of Professionalism represent the behavior expected of Oklahoma attorneys in their dealings with each other, clients, courts and the public. Among these expectations are ongoing legal education (2.4), honesty, civility and professionalism in dealings with clients (1.6) and comporting professional conduct in an unbiased manner.
Standard 2.4 indicates that lawyers are expected to “continually engage in legal education and recognize our limitations of knowledge and experience.” Paired with the requirement for competent representation in Rule 1.1 of the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct, attorneys may feel they are limited to the provision of pro bono legal services that are within their area of expertise. However, working with a pro bono program that provides training and/or ongoing assistance in an area where an attorney may feel less comfortable is truly a great opportunity to meet their ethical obligation to provide pro bono services and learn new skills or a new area of law. Additionally, this model aligns with Comment 2, which emphasizes the importance of the fundamental skill of identifying the involved legal problems, specifically stating “necessarily transcends any particular specialized knowledge.”
Honesty, professionalism and civility are expected in our conduct with clients, opposing counsel, parties, witnesses and the public (1.6). In addition to these guidelines for conduct, the Standards of Professionalism also expect a higher degree of grace and courtesy for our clients. More specifically, “We will refrain from engaging in professional conduct which exhibits or is intended to appeal to or engender bias against a person based upon that person's race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.” These considerations are necessary for all involved in a legal matter. Thus, attorneys should always strive to act in a professional manner in accordance with the Rules of Professional Conduct. Fortunately, many legal services organizations provide training around effectively working with marginalized communities that can improve one’s ability to offer culturally sensitive legal services.
If you are looking for a pro bono opportunity that provides training and support to learn a new area of law, we highly recommend partnering with an organization that has a robust pro bono program, such as Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, Tulsa Lawyers for Children, Oklahoma Lawyers for Families and Children, Oklahoma City Afghan Legal Network, Palomar or one of the many others you can find through the Oklahoma Pro Bono Portal. Pro bono service is an outstanding chance to meet your professional ethical responsibility, continue your professional development and serve your fellow Oklahomans.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Melissa Brooks is the director of legal information and engagement at the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation, where she supports and expands pro bono efforts across Oklahoma and builds public legal information. Ms. Brooks earned her J.D. at the OCU School of Law with a certificate in estate planning.
Katie Dilks is the executive director of the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation, which strives to increase meaningful participation in a fair and accessible civil justice system. Ms. Dilks received her J.D. and master's degree in public policy from Georgetown University.
 1.1 We understand that the law is a learned profession and that among its tenets are devotion to public service, improvement of the administration of justice, and access to justice for our fellow citizens. 1.3 We will donate legal services to persons unable to afford those services. 1.5 We will contribute time on a pro bono basis to community activities. https://bit.ly/3NFuLrI.
 Major, Lindsey & Africa, “Gen Z: Now Influencing Today’s Law Firm Culture,” 2023.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal – OBJ 95 Vol 6 (August 2023)
Statements or opinions expressed in the Oklahoma Bar Journal are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Oklahoma Bar Association, its officers, Board of Governors, Board of Editors or staff.