On the Road to MJP Reform

When PBI traveled south earlier this month to the 5th Biennial Virginia Pro Bono Summit, we were reminded of an earlier venture down the highway to attend the Commonwealth’s first Pro Bono Summit in 2010. It was not the first road trip that PBI had undertaken in the name of improving access to justice through multijurisdictional practice (MJP) reform, nor would it be the last. The summit was an inspiring gathering that included a persuasive appeal from Randy Milch, then general counsel at Verizon Communications Inc.**, to the Virginia Supreme Court to change restrictive practice rules that prevented many of Verizon’s in-house counsel from participating in pro bono legal services. Within a year, Virginia amended its rule and adopted what has become model language with regard to non-locally licensed in-house counsel engaging in pro bono.

Over the years, PBI has worked with in-house counsel, like those at Verizon, in more than a dozen jurisdictions to change restrictive practice rules that limit participation in pro bono by in-house counsel. Currently, the practice rules in all but one state permit in-house counsel licensed in other U.S. jurisdictions to represent their in-state employer, often through a registration or similar certification process, but many of these rules limit representation to the employer-client, restricting “registered in-house counsel” participation in pro bono services for those in need.

PBI’s other road trips have included stops in St. Louis, Missouri to present to the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators a letter signed by 339 general counsel asking for rule changes to permit greater participation in pro bono by in-house counsel; Madison, Wisconsin to encourage the Wisconsin Supreme Court to adopt a proposal to expand in-house engagement; New York, New York to work with a cross-sector of the New York bar, including the New York Court of Appeals, to promote greater engagement by in-house counsel; and Hartford, Connecticut, at the invitation of the Connecticut Access to Justice Commission, to encourage a change to its rules regarding registered in-house pro bono practice. As a result of these efforts, and many others by PBI and other leaders in the legal community, thousands of in-house counsel have been empowered to engage in pro bono legal services. But more ground needs to be covered and more work needs to be done.

Current Status of In-House Pro Bono Rules
Model Jurisdictions (IL, NY, VA, WI)

Currently, there are four jurisdictions that have adopted model language – Illinois, New York, Virginia, and, most recently, Wisconsin. The rules in these states removed unnecessary restrictions and provide, simply, that registered in-house counsel may provide pro bono services and that those services be provided in a manner consistent with the local rules of professional conduct. The benefit of these rules is that they support broad participation among in-house counsel, allowing lawyers to serve the full range of needy clients while holding in-house counsel to the same high standards all lawyers practicing in the state must follow. These lawyers are also subject to the rules of discipline in both the jurisdiction in which they are licensed and the jurisdiction in which they are registered to practice.

The remaining U.S. jurisdictions impose several restrictions that often limit the source of the pro bono engagement to legal services organizations and/or mandate supervision from another lawyer, whether needed or not.

However, requiring authorized in-house counsel to work with approved legal services organizations prevents in-house counsel from fully serving communities in need. Many legal aid organizations limit the types of clients they serve (often excluding nonprofits, micro-entrepreneurs, and community economic development groups), as well as the types of cases they handle. In-house counsel are often uniquely suited to provide assistance to individuals and organizations that legal aid programs do not serve. There are many organizations, including law firms, social service agencies, foundations, and community groups that also offer pro bono opportunities for in-house counsel.

Furthermore, protections already exist that require all attorneys, including non-locally licensed in-house counsel who are authorized to work locally for their employers, to be competent and follow the rules of professional conduct. Restrictive in-house pro bono practice rules do not add more protection, instead they discourage thousands of skilled in-house counsel from providing pro bono. The result of these practice rules is that fewer clients are served and less assistance is provided.

Advocating for changes to these types of barriers has been an important priority for PBI. Corporate Pro Bono, Pro Bono Institute’s partnership project with the Association of Corporate Counsel, works with hundreds of legal departments and ACC chapters across the U.S. interested in contributing to justice for all. From creating and staffing court-based hotlines and resource desks, to representing unaccompanied minors, to advising underfunded nonprofits that provide critical services to communities in need, in-house counsel are on the frontlines of providing pro bono legal services and are playing an ever increasing role in addressing the justice gap.

Here at PBI, we’re willing to put in the miles to help drive this important cause forward. Will you join us on the ride? For more information, contact us at cpbo@probonoinst.org.

** denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory