Rule Change in California Removes Barriers for In-House Pro Bono

The California Supreme Court recently loosened restrictions on the ability of non-locally licensed in-house counsel to engage in pro bono legal services, effective March 1, 2019. Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO) and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) worked to advocate for amendments to the California Rules of Court and the State Bar Rules that would remove burdensome restrictions on pro bono practice for in-house counsel. Approximately three dozen Chief Legal Officers (CLOs) signed onto letters in support of the rule change.

Prior to the amendments, in order to practice pro bono, non-locally licensed, registered in-house counsel were required to additionally register as Legal Services Attorneys and restricted to providing pro bono services for only a single qualifying provider for a maximum of three years. These limitations presented a significant barrier to many California in-house counsel from engaging in pro bono and ran counter to the state bar’s commitment to bridge the justice gap.

While California did not go as far as the four states with model rules (Illinois, New York, Virginia, and Wisconsin) in eliminating all unnecessary restrictions on non-locally licensed registered in-house counsel from practicing pro bono, the amendments are a welcome change in a state with singularly strict rules.

The Programs Committee of the Board of Trustees of the California State Bar took up the issue in 2018, proposing amendments to ease the restrictions. The issue went before the full Board in the fall of 2018, which sought public comments on the proposed rules. On December 12, 2018, the State Bar of California filed a petition with the California Supreme Court proposing the revisions.  Just over two months later, on February 22, 2019, the Supreme Court approved adoption of the proposed amendments.

The amendments do away with the Legal Services Attorney dual registration requirement and the time limit on providing pro bono services. Under the amended rules, in-house counsel are not limited to providing pro bono through a single legal aid organization, although counsel must submit a supplemental form identifying the legal aid organizations and the supervising attorney. Additionally, registered in-house counsel may provide pro bono services through either eligible legal aid organizations or the qualifying institution that employs him or her.

A unique feature of California’s new rule permits in-house counsel to provide pro bono services through their employer’s pro bono program. This aspect of the rule builds in flexibility for in-house counsel who are participating in pro bono work under the auspices of their legal department’s pro bono program, which may offer a variety of engagements throughout the year. It is a worthwhile feature to consider for states seeking to ensure accountability for pro bono services, which can come from the institution employing in-house counsel as well as from a legal aid organization.

The PBEye congratulates all involved in bringing about this rule change in California, which should pave the way for increased in-house pro bono and improve access to justice.

Interested in learning more about which states authorize in-house attorneys to do pro bono and other rules governing pro bono practice? CPBO offers many helpful resources on the right to practice pro bono, including an interactive map with state-by-state information about pro bono practice rules, a Guide to In-House Pro Bono Multijurisdictional Practice Rules, and an infographic on the Right to Practice. CPBO also offers a Guide to Select Rules for Pro Bono Practice that provides a state-by-state view of pro bono rules governing limited scope representation, CLE for pro bono, out-of-state and emeritus attorneys, among others. If you have questions about the rules in your jurisdiction, please contact CPBO Director Tammy Sun.