ACC has long championed the fight against onerous in-house counsel registration requirements. As a result, many jurisdictions now permit non-locally barred in-house attorneys to practice law for their employer-client as long as they are in good standing in another state. Unfortunately, this exception does not always extend to providing pro bono services to those most in need, and, when it does, it typically comes with difficult and unnecessary restrictions.
These restrictions are unacceptable. The need for pro bono legal services is immense and growing. Since 1994, studies have found that 80 percent of the legal needs of low-income individuals go unmet. Many in-house attorneys are interested in helping, but those who are not locally barred are handcuffed by state rules that unjustifiably limit their ability to contribute. The result is not that the pro bono work is getting done by other lawyers; it is simply not getting done. The rules must change.
Restrictions vary by jurisdiction. The most common requirement is that non-locally admitted in-house attorneys work with an approved legal aid organization. Requiring already overworked legal aid lawyers to supervise only increases the burden legal aid organizations face. In addition, many legal aid organizations specialize in only a segment of unmet legal needs. To best meet the needs of low-income communities, in-house counsel should have the ability to work with all potential pro bono sources, including community groups and law firms, to assist in the greater effort to address the unmet need for legal services.
A related restriction found in a number of jurisdictions requires non-locally admitted in-house attorneys be supervised by an active member of the bar. Mandated supervision unduly limits the number of hours that supervisors and supervisees can provide pro bono services. This is particularly insulting and frustrating when the in-house attorneys are already practicing in the state for their employers. Large companies get the benefit of their in-house attorneys’ skills, knowledge, and experience, but the clients with the most need do not.
Exceptions to the rule
Fortunately, there are two exceptions: Colorado and Virginia. Since 2006, in-house attorneys in Colorado who are not admitted in the state, but who are registered to provide legal services to their employer, may also provide legal services to indigent persons and the organizations that serve them. More recently, Virginia changed its rules so that certified in-house attorneys in the Commonwealth may provide pro bono services, subject to the same conditions that apply to the services they provide their employer, per the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct. This change enables and empowers the more than 800 certified in-house attorneys in Virginia to provide desperately needed pro bono assistance.
Follow Colorado and Virginia!
We hope that many states will follow these visionaries.While pro bono assistance alone cannot fill the widening gap between the legal needs of the poor and disenfranchised, there is great potential to improve and expand pro bono legal services.
In-house attorneys interested in learning more about this issue or joining the effort to change the rules in other jurisdictions, should contact Eve Runyon, director of Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO). CPBO is a partnership project of Pro Bono Institute and the Association of Corporate Counsel.