Pro Bono as Professional Punishment?

No surprise here — we spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and talking about why lawyers, law firms, and legal departments do pro bono work!  We even concluded the 2012 Pro Bono Institute Annual Conference with a half-day workshop, Why Do Lawyers Volunteer?, during which renowned expert Dr. Larry Richard examined questions related to why lawyers choose to do pro bono work, and how the individual’s workplace influences—for better or worse—that decision.

Until it recently came to our attention, one driver that we had not focused on is pro bono service performed as a result of professional disciplinary action.  Although several states have similar schemes, a case out of Rhode Island, a state to which we have close ties, is representative.  Faced with an attorney who had failed to provide diligent representation to his client in a medical malpractice case (not replying to discovery requests and agreeing to dismiss the case without the client’s knowledge and consent), in April the Rhode Island Supreme Court adopted a recommendation of its Disciplinary board and ordered the attorney to perform 75 hours of community and/or pro bono service within one year as a disciplinary sanction.

Pro bono service as a sanction in the context of lawyer professional discipline strikes us as being a potential “worst practice” that could negatively impact the profession and the clients being served.  Do we want to send the message that pro bono is a punishment of a lesser alternative to disbarment or suspension?  And, what about the pro bono clients?  Do we feel confident that lawyers who have been sanctioned for unethical actions will provide pro bono clients with the high-quality representation they deserve?

Do you agree or disagree?  Leave us a comment below and tell us what you think.