Should pro bono work be mandatory in Michigan?

By Tom Gantert

Legal News

In the state of Michigan, attorneys are encouraged by the state bar ever year to do three pro-bono cases or put in 30 hours or donate up to $500 to not-for-profit organizations that serve pro-bono clients.

Robert Mathis, the pro-bono service counsel for the Michigan State Bar, said that he doesn't see the state adopting mandatory pro-bono requirements, such as New York recently did.

New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman made the announcement on May 1 that starting next year anyone applying for admission to the New York state bar would first have to complete 50 hours of pro bono work, according to

Lippman said more and more people are going to court without a lawyer and estimated if every state in the country adopted the same 50-hour of pro bono work requirement, it would equate to 2.5 million hours of free legal service. Lippman wants other states to also require pro-bono service as part of being admitted into a state bar.

But Mathis said New York's 50-hour requirement is a one-time deal while Michigan's suggested guidelines would promote a more long-term effect on pro-bono services.

"We try to foster the every-year commitment," Mathis said. "It's not a one-time thing."

Fifty hours of pro-bono work is more than most Michigan lawyers put in during a year, according to the 2010 Michigan State Bar survey. The median level of hours a year was 24 for private practitioners and 20 hours for non-private practitioners.

But Mathis said requiring non-licensed attorneys to do pro-bono work would put more of a burden on practicing attorneys. Mathis said a licensed attorney has to supervise the work done by unlicensed attorneys.

Peter Flintoft of Keusch, Flintoft & Conlin, P.C., said the idea to require pro-bono work for new lawyers sounds good, but only if there is adequate supervision.

"It's a tough thing (pro-bono work)," Flintoft said. "I'd like to know who is managing it."

Flintoft said the pro-bono cases he has had that required litigation "are miserable."

He said many pro-bono cases involve drugs and competency issues and may be a handful for a young attorney.

"There are some real dogs that get kicked for pro-bono," Flintoft said. "I can see a lot of harm done to clients if the lawyer doesn't follow it through. ... It's worthy work. It's really learning. But there needs to be office support behind that person and that person needs to be monitored and shepherd in some way."

"My fear is that it's a young person," Flintoft said. "He or she may have a nightmare." He added that a new lawyer would complete his pro-bono service, gain admission to the state bar "and the first thing he is doing is defending his own grievance."

There is a concern that the requirement for law school graduates may evolve to include mandatory pro-bono work be done by all lawyers.

Eric Kyser said the current pro-bono system for all attorneys works on an "honor code" system. Kyser said he serves on various community boards on his own time, which he considers to be in the spirit of pro-bono.

"I have clients I've done things for at a tremendous discount," Kyser said.

Kyser said if it comes to providing real service to clients, he's not sure if "hours" is the best way for it to be tracked. He said he's done two hours of work for some clients that were as beneficial as 10 hours of work he's done on other less complicated issues.

"Who is going to keep track of the hours?" Kyser asked. "Who is going to determine who is doing the hours and who is not? I guess it would be the honor system, which is what it is right now."

When Trent Harris attended the Chicago-Kent College of Law, he said there was no requirement for pro-bono service. Like many law school graduates, the Jackson attorney got accepted into the state bar without needing any experience in pro-bono work.

"I wouldn't be against it," said Harris, who has been practicing law for 3 1/3 years in Michigan. "It would hopefully give some people experience. Everyone knows when you get out of law school, that's when you learn how to be a lawyer."

Harris said he counsels non-profits for no charge as part of his pro-bono work.

With his practice focusing on business law and real estate and estate planning, there isn't much pro-bono work needed in that area of the law.

There is a tremendous demand for pro-bono work in criminal and child and family law, he said.

When Ryan Phillips graduated from Cooley Law School in 2009, the Jackson attorney said he met his pro-bono service requirement by helping low-income individuals in Ingham County do estate planning. Phillips says he thinks it would be a good idea to require pro-bono work to gain admission to Michigan's bar.

"I would be in favor of it because it would promote professionalism," Phillips said. "It would give law students the opportunity to experience procedure and practice, which I think is lacking in law school to a great degree."

The two-day state bar exam does little to prepare you for an actual practice and is more about memorization and reading, he says. And he thinks requiring pro-bono service would be shift that shows the bar examiners are interested in "the applicant's ability to practice law."

Published: Thu, Jun 14, 2012