Heart and soul convinces a lot of attorneys to volunteer their legal services.
The rest need different incentives, Benjamin Weinberg, a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal’s Chicago headquarters, explained to a group of about 70 attorneys during a Kansas City bar pitch on a database unprecedented in the state of Missouri.
- Supreme Court Judge Richard Teitelman and Jackson County Circuit Judge Ann Mesle’s goodbye is reflected in a mirrored column at the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association’s Pro Bono Summit on Friday. Photo by Scott Lauck
“If that were the only thing it was good for, you all wouldn’t be here,” Weinberg, the pro bono coordinator of the national law firm, said Friday. “It’s got to be good for the bottom line, as well.”
A new effort from the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association aims to provide those incentives at a time when the economy is forcing many more individuals to represent themselves.
The bar on Friday announced details of a pro bono database and Web site intended to link up Kansas City attorneys with citizens in need of free representation, part of a yearlong effort KCMBA President Rebbecca Lake Wood has spearheaded.
The group is seeking pledges from large and small law firms to commit their attorneys to varied hours of pro bono legal services. KCMBA also is approaching corporations and service providers for pledges to the program.
The Web site, www.kclawyerscareconnection.com, won’t be fully online until January 2010, when the pledges become active.
Wood said the association is trying to respond to an increasing need for pro bono services in light of high rates of foreclosures, divorces and other cases hitting the legal system.
“Pro se is a fine thing, but you need lawyers,” Missouri Supreme Court Judge Richard Teitelman said during the summit.
Citizen access to the site will come through intermediaries, such as battered women shelters, Legal Aid, public defenders and court employees.
Those agencies would post individuals’ legal needs onto the site, and then it would be up to the individual attorneys to pick and accept the requests as they so choose.
“They serve as the triage agent for the individual,” Wood said in an interview. “It’s a way to tap into that instinctive altruistic desire [of attorneys] and channel it in a way that feels safe.”
But Friday wasn’t just about “wearing your heart on your sleeve.”
She said the program will include education components, like informational videos on different areas of law so attorneys will feel more comfortable taking on different types of cases.
Attorneys ideally would be able to check out DVDs and watch the sessions at their leisure.
Also, the program is attempting to play up the role of pro bono work in a successful business model to encourage more participation.
Giving young attorneys access to pro bono cases can help employee development, said Robert Dicks, a principal at Deloitte Consulting in New York.
Pro bono reduces the amount of oversight needed over associates, and it develops core managerial skills in fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year associates, he said.
“The mid-level associate can move from a doer to a manager,” he said, noting pro bono work can reduce employee turnover.
Weinberg added that a strong pro bono portfolio also bodes well for large law firms from a public image standpoint. Any community recognition is a positive for the firm and the attorney.
“There’s too many of us,” he said. “We need to differentiate ourselves.”
Wood said the database will keep track of and post participants’ hours, in addition to showing law firms where they rate compared to other law firms on their volunteer hours.
It’s a feature of the site designed to “encourage friendly rivalry,” Wood said.
So far, KCMBA hasn’t had to spend any hard dollars on the program.
FindLaw is donating its service to set up the Web Site.
Midwest Litigation Services in Kansas City has committed to producing the educational videos for attorneys, as well.
The bar is devoting an existing staff member to the program in 2010.
KCMBA hasn’t set any specific goals on hours or attorney participation, but Wood said she received a lot of interest in pledges prior to Friday’s pro bono summit.