Pro Bono: The Lawyer’s “Tithe”

I recently attended a mandatory event for newly licensed Arkansas attorneys. The event was built around professionalism—how to show it, how not to show it, and why it matters. Assuming that the amount of time you spend on something is related to its importance, the Arkansas Bar Association is clearly concerned about pro bono work and is making it a priority. I was encouraged by the emphasis on pro bono work over, say, more “traditional” examples of professionalism. You know, really important things like how to match a tie to a jacket, how to appear interesting at social events, and whether to end a letter with “sincerely” or “best regards.”

Arkansas Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 states that lawyers should “aspire” (?) to devote fifty hours a year to pro bono work. I’m not sure what that means, but it is a start.

What struck me about this rule—other than being opaque—is the call to deliberately set aside a specific amount of time for pro bono work. Under Rule 6.1, it is not enough that an attorney end up not charging for 50 hours of work during the year. And although it is closer to the spirit of Rule 6.1, it is not enough that an attorney simply decide not to bill someone for 50 hours of work during the year. Instead, Rule 6.1 calls Arkansas lawyers to intentionally set aside time during the year on cases for which the lawyer purposefully charges no fee for his or her services.

In some sense, then, Rule 6.1 calls the Arkansas lawyer to “tithe” 50 hours a year to the cause of access to justice. Although tithing has been primarily a religious institution, it has often served an important civil function. In ancient Israel, for instance, where the church and state were wedded together, the tithe operated much like our modern income tax. The funds were appropriated not only for religious purposes but also for infrastructure and for the poor.

I think that Arkansas lawyers would be well served to think about Rule 6.1 as a tithe. I do not mean that pro bono service has a religious purpose; instead, I mean that we need to set aside time for pro bono work. The 50 hours that we devote to public service should not be an accident, nor should the time fall somewhere between service for “real clients.”

Lawyers should look forward with eager anticipation to serving low-income clients—to the exclusion of paying clients—whenever we can. That would be a sacrifice. But the 50 hours per year is not a sacrifice; it is our duty, and it should be the best work that we do.

Just like a tithe, those 50 hours should come off the top. The public deserves more than just leftovers.

For more information about the justice gap in Arkansas, this is a helpful article.