Pro Bono Isn’t Just for Attorneys: How to Organize a Judicial Pro Bono Summit—and Some Ideas on What Judges Can Do Themselves

5 Min Read By: Catherine Peek McEwen

Judges can be significant contributors to pro bono service. No, they certainly cannot jump across the bench and represent poor litigants in the well of the courtroom. But there are other meaningful ways judges can participate in promoting access to the courts for indigent parties. So how can judges foster pro bono service to parties who otherwise cannot afford an attorney? And how do judges learn about what they can and should be doing to advance this important goal?

Those questions are answered in my area by a biennial Judicial Pro Bono Summit. The organizer is my state circuit’s Florida Supreme Court–mandated pro bono committee (of which I am a member). We invite all judges—state and federal—who sit within the boundaries of our state judicial circuit (which comprises our county) to attend an informal, box-lunch meeting away from their courthouses.  During the summit, we educate judges about referral resources and actions the judges can take to promote pro bono representation. The summit is easy to organize, inexpensive, and enjoyable. Indeed, a great byproduct of these judges-only gatherings is getting to know our state and federal colleagues better. 

Organizing the Summit

We meet in a casual, private setting, our local general bar association building’s meeting hall. The cost of the boxed lunch can be handled in two ways: The local pro bono committee can find sponsors (law firms), or each judge and pay the modest cost of the lunch. A great time for holding a judicial pro bono summit is during National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, which this year runs October 22–28, 2017. (Go here for more information on the celebration: www.probono.net/celebrateprobono/.)

The summit’s format is simple and designed to take no more than one hour. The first part features a few local pro bono legal service providers making brief presentations on what populations those organizations serve and in what subject matters. And then we discuss various ways judges can perform pro bono service personally and can encourage and promote pro bono service by attorneys. We also provide a handbook-style compilation of useful resources, including referral information for legal services providers in the area, so that these resources will be within arm’s reach on the bench. Excerpts of the written materials can also be posted on our local bar association’s website. The materials also list ways a judge may participate in pro bono, and the lunch discussion usually generates more ideas. Below is a sampling of permissible activities.

Hands-on Pro Bono Service

  • Work with the local bar to create a self-help desk and materials for pro se parties (see, e.g., www.flmd.uscourts.gov/pro_se/docs/USDC-MDFL-Civil_Case_Flowchart.pdf, and http://www.flmd.uscourts.gov/pro_se/docs/FLMD_ProSe_Handbook.pdf)
  • Work with the local bar to create a courthouse walk-in clinic, open during specified hours and staffed by volunteer attorneys
  • Create a legal assistance program in which judges may appoint volunteer lawyers to staff cases involving indigent parties (see, e.g., www.mieb.uscourts.gov/programs-services and www.flmb.uscourts.gov/legal_assistance/)
  • Alert bar organizations to opportunities for pro bono funding, such as Bench Bar Funds (attorney admission fees), undistributable funds in a chapter 11 case, or cy pres funds in other cases
  • Act as a notary or intake assistant at legal clinics, such as the ABA’s Homeless Experience Legal Protection program that is run in many major cities
  • Create a pro bono toolkit for judges (see, e.g., Missouri’s at www.courts.mo.gov/page.jsp?id=4975)
  • Provide training for pro bono attorneys
  • Lecture on consumer law topics at local libraries
  • Reach for your wallet and donate money to a local pro bono provider and/or your state bar’s foundation (incidentally, I obtained an ethics opinion from the Judicial Conference of the United States saying this is okay for federal judges to do in most circumstances, and one of my state colleagues obtained similar advice for Florida judges; contact me if you’d like copies)

Encouraging and Promoting Pro Bono Service

  • Participate as a member of a local or state bar association pro bono committee
  • Urge your federal judicial law clerk to engage in pro bono work consistent with the Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees, Canon 4D (a judicial employee may provide pro bono service on his or her own time under certain circumstances set out in the canon) or your state code’s counterpart
  • Advocate for pro bono publicly by writing op-ed pieces for local news media or appearing on radio or TV (see, e.g., www.tbo.com/list/news-opinion-commentary/national-celebrate-pro-bono-week-should-be-cheered-20151025/ and www.tbo.com/list/news-opinion-commentary/a-wish-list-for-access-to-the-courts-20150110/)
  • Write a letter to newly barred attorneys asking them to take a pro bono case or provide other pro bono service
  • Express appreciation of pro bono attorneys in open court, court newsletters, or personalized letters
  • Provide perks and accommodations for pro bono attorneys such as "go to the front of the line" privileges or even providing a special parking place at the courthouse
  • Display pro bono opportunities/promotional materials in the courtroom
  • Nominate pro bono lawyers and voluntary bar associations for pro bono awards
  • Permit unbundled (limited scope) services in pro bono cases
  • Appear at pro bono award ceremonies
  • Speak on pro bono service at bar association luncheons, swearing-in ceremonies, and other legal organization gatherings
  • And, last but not least, organize a Judicial Pro Bono Summit to spread the word to your area’s colleagues on the bench

Judges, by planning a judicial pro bono summit in your area for some time in the coming year, I bet you could double this list!

Editor’s Note: This article is a substantial revision of an article that first appeared in the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges’ Conference News.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tampa, FL

Catherine Peek McEwen

Catherine Peek McEwen is a Federal Bankruptcy Court Judge for the United States bankruptcy court, Middle District of Florida. She was appointed to the court on August 22, 2005, and her current term…

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