Free legal services arent good only for the low-income people who get the help, Mary Hobson says.
I hear from lawyers that it was not only a pleasure, but it was an honor, says Hobson, legal director of the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program. And thats not often what you hear about the rest of their caseload.
Previously a partner at Stoel Rives in Boise, Hobson has spent the past seven years heading the volunteer program, which is funded by the Idaho Law Foundation and housed at the Idaho State Bar offices in Downtown Boise.
Its a wonderfully satisfying thing, to be able to take someone in need and match them with someone who can help, she says.
Those matches led to about 600 pro bono (free) cases handled across Idaho last year, not counting the more than 1,000 cash-strapped Idahoans who received legal advice and resources at the various free clinics the program holds each month for senior citizens, veterans, homeless citizens and others, Hobson says.
From single-lawyer operations to the biggest Downtown Boise firms, attorneys donate their services to help with everything from preparing documents to navigating complex court cases. The Idaho State Bars rules of professional conduct call for each lawyer in the state to donate at least 50 hours of pro bono (free) services each year, and many go far beyond that requirement, Hobson says.
Idahoans who cant afford to hire an attorney get a wide range of services and advice. Attorneys get personal satisfaction and variety. So whats in it for law firms?
I think if your lawyers feel good about being lawyers, its a big deal for them, Hobson says.
And, adds Holland & Hart Administrative Partner Nicole Snyder, its ultimately good for the bottom line.
I think clients and businesses are far more likely to hire attorneys whom they perceive to be charitable and community-minded, Snyder says.
Holland & Hart requires its more than 40 Boise lawyers and those who work elsewhere in the regional firm to donate at least 100 hours per year, twice the State Bar recommendation. On average, Holland & Hart attorneys commit about 9 percent of their billable hours to pro bono work, Snyder says.
Cases include protective orders in abusive situations, immigration and deportation cases, divorce and guardianship, she says. Holland & Hart lawyers often volunteer through Hobsons office, while other pro bono cases come directly to the firm, she says.
At the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program, about 75 percent of all cases involve family law, Hobson says.
A 2011 Idaho State Bar survey indicates fewer than 30 percent of Idaho law firms have a formal pro bono policy, but Hobson says unwritten directives to give services to the needy are far more common. Written policies are becoming more frequent. she says, and the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program posts templates of pro bono policies on its website to encourage their proliferation.
Interest in pro bono legal service has increased in recent years, she says, in part because of growing need among Idahoans hit hard by the Great Recession and the addition of pro bono work to graduation requirements for law students at the University of Idaho, Concordia University and out-of state colleges.
In addition to the personal satisfaction of helping a low-income person resolve a custody issue or otherwise assert rights, many lawyers can broaden their experience and do things outside their regular assigned areas, she says.
And young lawyers may get into court more quickly, Hobson adds. They may get a chance to talk to real people as clients, as opposed to being the third person in a suit sitting across the table from the client.
Donated legal services represent a major benefit to the community and the state, too, she says. For example, she says, helping a single mother obtain child support could enable the woman to go back to school and become financially independent, reducing dependency on the state and increasing family stability.
I hope the community can recognize the importance of what attorneys do, she says.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447