Recently the Virginia State Bar's governing Council learned of a proposal for mandatory pro bono reporting, to be presented at its meeting this Thursday, and I posted the text and practical details of the proposal on this blog.
Yesterday I took a break from the proposal's technical intricacies to write about what state pro bono rules and other pro bono efforts mean in the big picture, in "Throw the poor a bono? The real problem is that pro bono is no solution."
Now, back to the proposal at hand, but this time, the human side of it, not the technicalities.
The Virginia proponents argue that the change would not in any way lead to mandatory pro bono, and that there is no reason to be concerned about a “slippery slope”. They point out that the handful of states that have mandatory reporting have not later moved to mandatory pro bono.
They even point out that mandatory reporting may prevent a future imposition of mandatory pro bono, by (1) encouraging more voluntary pro bono work, and (2) putting together and publicizing the amount of pro bono work that is being done.
Well, that's like saying you can be 400 pounds and be as healthy as a horse. And you can choose not to get married and be more stable, committed, lifelong partners and parents than people who do. Possible? Certainly. Likely? Never. Unless you are a horse.
Most of us know how these things usually go, in Virginia and in the rest of the developed world. We know all about how to boil a frog, and when'n'how to gradually lubricate a slippery slope. For example, we all know respected, mainstream people who routinely will say that there’s no reason anyone in modern society should have any kind of gun, or how we’re the only democracy that doesn’t provide universal free health care, free two-month vacations, etc. But then when a policy that would move in that direction goes to the legislature, all that talk goes quiet, and all you hear is about how limited this particular measure is, and how dare anyone suggest that it would ever lead to more radical changes later on, of course we would never do that.In Virginia, we punctuate each step in this process by chuckling, “Virginia’s so conservative … they’d never try to slippery that slope here ….”. Then just a few years after it passes, all you hear is that that reform hasn’t made enough of a difference, and is somehow failing to achieve its real goal of making us perfectly healthy and gun-free, so we need to go back and strengthen it.
Would this happen with Mandatory Pro Bono? If you only looked at what’s being enacted right now, it doesn’t look extremely likely, but then again they have it in at least one huge state now compared to no states six years ago. The only bars requiring it are New York State, where it was imposed by the Chief Judge over the objections of the state bar association, and several federal district courts. California’s state bar trustees approved a similar rule in 2014, subject to approval by the Supreme Court and the legislature. New York and California did this through the vehicle of bar admissions, as part of on-the-job training. The federal courts, from what I’ve seen, seem to do it through panels of lawyers who already try civil cases there frequently.
But the CONCEPT of mandatory pro bono – the widespread if not majority belief that it’s one of the main possible solutions – has been well-known for decades and is not going away. For a lot of people, mandating or prohibiting something is the first and easiest thing to think of when they are first told about a problem. Just a few weeks ago, Justice Sotomayor called for mandatory pro bono, and it might not be a coincidence that she did so in a speech to the American Law Institute, which is always looking for new projects, in response to a question from the Institute’s Director.
Also, bear in mind what happened in New York: The Virginia State Bar’s elected leaders may not want mandatory pro bono, but all too often they are not the deciders – the Virginia Supreme Court is. If and when the Supreme Court is thinking about mandating pro bono, these proposed reporting and enforcement rules will make it easy for them.
Finally, we’re at a point where our nation’s politics, Virginia’s politics, and the beliefs of the generations and cohorts that enter and lead our professions, have moved left for several years now, but the law and the makeup of the bench have lagged behind that. For decades we’ve had a U.S. Supreme Court that took individual rights seriously even when they seemed to be in conflict with other progressive goals. So liberal and professional groups have recognized that there are certain things that constitutional law might not let you do, and that they should focus their efforts elsewhere for the time being. But now we’re hanging fire between the judicial regime that died with Justice Scalia, and the one that will take shape when he is replaced.
So let’s not be comforted by saying mandatory will never happen, or only happens in outlying states like New York and California. I believe that if you oppose mandatory pro bono, or if you oppose lightly deciding to add to the burdens, deadlines and penalties that we place on our members, who vary greatly in earnings, time commitments, clerical support, expertise, and opportunity to do pro bono, then you should not support mandatory reporting of voluntary work.