Friday, April 29, 2011

MandaTTTory Pro Bono

Shilling Me Softly has guest post by David Mandell today on mandatory pro bono, a subject near and dear to my heart. When I was a newly-admitted, frequently un- and under-employed member of the NJ bar (note, member of the bar, not practicing attorney), there was NOTHING more grating.

Imagine being a temporary file clerk and having to miss two days or more of work to defend a low-life with "big problems and empty pockets," in the words of the esteemed Scott Bullock. This isn't helping them fill out forms. Instead, it's full-blown representation from start to finish, with potentially multiple court appearances. These individuals can benefit from effective assistance of counsel, particularly in family law matters, but you personally get no resources or assistance, whatsoever. Need to get an interview translated from Spanish? Good luck. This is truly shitlaw on steroids.

I have little to add to Mandell's excellent post. He already noted the various exemptions under New Jersey law, but didn't explain how many lawyers they cover. This is a state with 566 municipalities in 21 counties. The vast majority have a municipal judge, prosecutor(s), and defender(s). These typically part-time positions go to lawyers from politically-connected firms like everything else in this venal state. Want to help your associates shirk pro bono? Get them an assignment somewhere.

I'm told that volunteering with a legal aid society can get you out of mandatory pro bono. This might be a good way to go if you want to help people with tenant issues and avoid the gamier cases you'd otherwise be assigned.

Pro tip: As NJ solos are painfully aware, the state Supreme Court enthusiastically enforces the bona fide office rule. If you don't have a bona fide office, you can't practice law and ... drum roll ... can't represent pro bono clients. Capiche? Doesn't hurt to ask to be excused, though note the tendency to "not receive" your request.

When I finally threw in the towel and formally retired from the practice of law (note: I never had a paying engagement for which a JD was required), it was to avoid mandatory pro bono. Pro bono is truly a feel-good measure for our pious judiciary and bar. It allows them to tell the public what swell folks they are, even as they kick their struggling brethren in the teeth.

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