The Future of Pro Bono in Maryland

January 12, 2018

As Originally Appeared in the May 2018 edition of the Bar Bulletin of the Maryland State Bar Association

Authored by:  Olivia R. Holcombe-Volke, Partner at Elville and Associates; Melinda Fithen, Associate with Venable LLP; and Brian Weeks, Administrative Law Judge for the Office of Administrative Hearings

There is a boom in the number of lawyers practicing in Maryland, according to the ABA National Lawyer Population Survey. Over the last decade, the number of lawyers in Maryland has increased by 84 percent to a total of 38,000 members of the bar. With so many attorneys, one would think that securing sufficient pro bono representation for Maryland residents in need would be no problem, right? Wrong.

Statistics show that the majority of Maryland attorneys do not participate in pro bono work early in their careers. According to the Maryland Courts 2016 Pro Bono Report, 58 percent of full-time Maryland lawyers did not provide pro bono service in their first five years of being barred. It is during this critical time, when new lawyers are taking on a competitive legal job market and trying to establish themselves professionally, that pro bono work can be the most rewarding and fruitful.

The Need is Real

Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), the largest provider of pro bono civil legal services to low-income Marylanders, estimates that there is one attorney for every 3,600 pro bono clients. Now is the time for new attorneys to explore pro bono service, for their careers and for their communities.

Pro Bono Pays Back

When attorneys invest their time in pro bono work, it pays them back generously. As successful Maryland attorneys, and members of MVLS’s new volunteer engagement initiative – Community Advocacy Network (CAN), – we can share several reasons why it is vital to take on pro bono cases early in an attorney’s legal career.

  1. Mentorship from practicing Maryland attorneys Mentorship is a crucial part of professional development for newly barred attorneys. By joining a pro bono legal services organization, attorneys will learn from the wisdom and experience of other lawyers who can provide mentorship for a variety of case types, as well as client relations (specifically, how to navigate different client interactions while being sensitive to the clients’ situations).
  2. Expanding legal skills Participating in pro bono can introduce new attorneys to different areas of the law while also giving them the opportunity to experience new things, such as serving as first chair on a trial, working directly with clients, or doing transactional work. Attorneys can gain courtroom experience in a variety of practice areas, including child custody, landlord/tenant disputes, debt collection and tort defense. Alternatively, volunteers can choose cases that do not require litigation such as estate planning, estate administration, expungement, or contract review.
  3. Developing a legal network Doing pro bono work helps lawyers expand their networks by connecting them with local bar leaders, attorney pioneers, and members of the bench. It can expose a new attorney to professionals working at large and small law firms, or those who have chosen the solo route. Relationships established through pro bono work may even lead to full-time employment or profitable billable client referrals.
  4. Establishing community ties Building an important network through pro bono work is not limited to fellow attorneys – it can also mean the opportunity to connect with a variety of community organizations, like House of Ruth, Helping Up Mission, CASA de Maryland and CASH Campaign, among many others. By broadening their horizons in this way, new attorneys will begin to feel like they can make a difference in their communities using the expertise and knowledge they possess.
  5. Providing legal assistance to Marylanders in need One of the most powerful reasons to participate in pro bono legal services is to help other people who have nothing to give but their gratitude. Earning a law degree is a remarkable accomplishment. Being able to interpret the law is not something every person can do. By offering their unique skills to the less fortunate, pro bono attorneys can advocate for children and families, protect seniors from the damaging effects of scams, contribute to workforce reentry, and stabilize Maryland communities.

The future of pro bono in Maryland depends on every single attorney who is reading this article. There is an abundance of opportunity for new attorneys who are just starting their career, as well as a need for more seasoned attorneys to donate their time and experience to this critical work.

To learn more about joining MVLS CAN, and how to get involved in pro bono work, please visit mvlslaw.org/mvls-can.

Melinda Fithen is an Associate with Venable LLP. Olivia Holcombe-Volke is a Partner at Elville & Associates, P.C. and Brian Weeks is an Administrative Law Judge for the Office of Administrative Hearings. They are all members of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) Community Advocacy Network (CAN).