Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Pro bono service fell slightly in Maryland last year, report finds

The percentage of Maryland lawyers who reported doing some pro bono work fell slightly last year, according to a report that captures data from the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic.

Overall, Maryland lawyers provided more than 1 million hours of pro bono services between July 2019 and June 2020. But the proportion of lawyers who provided those services fell to just below 40%, down from 41% in the previous reporting period and about 45% in the three previous years.

COVID-19 likely accounts for some of the difference, particularly early in the pandemic. Courts limited the services they offered in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

“We pivoted very quickly, but things just stopped,” said Sharon Goldsmith, the executive director of the Maryland Pro Bono Resource Center.

“I don’t know that it was so much lawyers stepping back as much as everyone being on hold for a while,” she said.

The percentage is higher among full-time lawyers with primary addresses in Maryland: Nearly 45% in that category reported some pro bono service, while the 40% figure covers all lawyers certified to practice law in Maryland, according to the report, titled “Current Status of Pro Bono Service Among Maryland Lawyers.”

Maryland rules require lawyers to report their pro bono services each year and set an aspirational goal of 50 hours per year of pro bono service for each lawyer.

Among full-time lawyers with primary addresses in Maryland, 15.6% met the goal of 50 hours or more.

“It is gratifying to know that Maryland’s attorneys remain committed to providing pro bono service whenever possible,” said Joseph M. Getty, the chief judge of Maryland’s Court of Appeals, in a news release.

The number of lawyers offering pro bono services hasn’t quite bounced back since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Susan Francis, the executive director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.

“Many of us, in the last year, year and a half, have looked for ways that we could support and give back in times with so many challenges,” Francis said. “But at the same time, we’ve also, at MVLS and I think all of the legal services programs, seen a decline in terms of new volunteers and volunteers taking cases in this moment.”

That’s in part because of new difficulties posed by the pandemic, such as a lack of child care. Small firms and solo attorneys also faced greater financial challenges when courts shut down, Francis said, which could have made it more difficult to offer pro bono help.

But the decline in volunteers offering pro bono services has created a disconnect as clients return with legal problems, in some cases exacerbated by the pandemic.

The clients have come back, some of the volunteers have come back, and we’re still waiting for the others to be able to rejoin as well,” Francis said.

The report on pro bono services in Maryland also highlighted a persistent issue, Goldsmith said. Lawyers who work in government have constraints on outside practice that can make pro bono work difficult.

About 84% of lawyers who reported practicing in government agencies also reported doing no pro bono work, according to the report.

“We’ve made some recommendations to allow them to administrative leave time to do pro bono work,” Goldsmith said. “They’re one of the lowest groups participating in pro bono. If we can remove some of those barriers there would be a significant component of the bar that could get involved.”

The report also showed that sole practitioners, attorneys in small firms and attorneys in very large firms offered more pro bono services than attorneys in large and midsize firms.

Nearly three-quarters of all pro bono services reported went toward directly helping people of limited means or assisting organizations that serve those populations, the report found.

Goldsmith also said that lawyers have found new, and in some cases more convenient, ways to offer pro bono services during the pandemic, such as remote assistance.

“I think people did respond,” she said. “It just took a little while, and I think people had to find the mechanisms to do so.”