Idaho high court hopefuls don’t track pro bono work

Curt McKenzie
Curt McKenzie The Associated Press

When Chief Justice Jim Jones steps down from the Idaho Supreme Court come January, he’ll leave a legacy as one of the state’s biggest champions of promoting some free or reduced-rate work by lawyers throughout Idaho’s judicial system.

“It’s part of the Idaho rules of professional conduct, it says lawyers should aspire to do at least 50 hours (of pro bono work) in a year,” said Jones, who helped form Idaho’s Pro Bono Commission in 2008. “A lot of lawyers do, but an even greater number of lawyers don’t.”

The two candidates hoping to replace Jones also support promoting pro bono work. However, neither Twin Falls attorney Robyn Brody nor state GOP Sen. Curt McKenzie say they track how many hours of pro bono work they provide. Both candidates say they believe they clock more than the suggested 50 hours of free or reduced-fee legal services each year.

Furthermore, neither candidate has ever reported providing legal services to the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program. The group recruits attorneys to volunteer on cases while also tracking how much pro bono work is being conducted across the state. As of 2015, the program reported more than 800 Idaho attorneys had given more than 16,000 hours of volunteer attorney assistance.

Brody signed a pledge to meet the 50-hour annual goal in 2013, but she has not reported meeting it, according to the volunteer program.

Pro bono refers to work done by attorneys on a volunteer basis for free or reduced rates. Idaho doesn’t require attorneys to track the number of pro bono hours they provide each year, but they are heavily encouraged to do so.

Brody says she accepted one case from the program in 2011 involving an adult who was mentally disabled. Brody added that she volunteers as a mentor for the Idaho Trial Lawyers Association and provides reduced rates as a mediator to a free legal clinic in Twin Falls.

“It’s not about taking a pledge, it’s about much more than that,” Brody said. “And that’s the wonderful thing about a law degree. I can’t save a life, but I sure can change it.”

McKenzie also estimated that he volunteers more than 50 hours of pro bono work a year. He stressed that he puts more emphasis on living a life of public service as a way to meet the pro bono obligation.

McKenzie pointed to his service as a seven-term state senator and volunteering his legal expertise to charities and community boards.

“I think it’s important for justices to take a keen interest in the administration and perception of justice throughout the state,” McKenzie said, adding that he wouldn’t focus primarily on promoting pro bono work as justice but he would support more of it.

Jones says judges can help create pro bono programs, ensure that legal service programs include standards for pro bono efforts and provide key leadership in making sure the state stays diligent in meeting the need for low-income clients.

For example, during his two terms on the state’s highest court, Jones helped change the rules to allow attorneys to provide free legal aid during only certain parts of a legal case rather than forcing attorneys to stay with a case in its entirety — which can be taxing to new attorneys and time-consuming.

Jones also helped form policy suggestions for private and public law firms hoping to adopt standards involving pro bono work during his time overseeing the Pro Bono Commission.

In January, Jones will step down from his seat as chief justice and will be replaced on the Pro Bono Commission by former Supreme Court candidate and Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez.

“There are so many lawyers who have a good heart and they have been involved in the pro bono effort,” he said. “I think they get a little burned out and we have to continue regenerating energy and enthusiasm.”