What's going on in Virginia's pro-bono-reporting controversy was illuminated for me by a recent interview with law professor Richard Epstein, known for many things but first for his monumental works on Strict Liability and Eminent Domain.
"... We're now entering into a compliance culture, where if you do something wrong, the sanctions are always draconian. So you (A) have to have somebody to fix it so you don't get punished. And (B) you have to have all your ducks in order so that if something goes wrong you have all sorts of defenses ... So the compliance culture essentially requires industry concentration ... If you double the size of a firm, you don't double the size of your compliance costs. And so one of the things that Obamacare has done is that it has led to a wave of hospital and industry mergers in an effort to minimize compliance costs thereby creating higher levels of market concentration, which leads to monopoly power."
Maybe that's why Virginia Lawyers Weekly reports that of the public comments the state bar received on mandatory pro bono reporting, the favorable majority overwhelmingly came from lawyers at big firms and legal aid agencies. I don't mean that this is big-firm lawyers' motive, but it's why the load of compliance isn't an issue for them, and is a big issue for small-firm and solo lawyers. Also, the rule lets firms concentrate their pro bono time in a few lawyers, so they can undertake big, time-consuming cases for the poor. That's a very worthy adaptation to the rule, IF there should even be a rule in the first place. And I suspect many bigger firms already keep track of all their lawyers' pro bono and extracurricular time, so they can put the results in press releases.
The proposed change only requires lawyers to fill in a number in a "How many hours" blank once a year when renewing their membership and paying their dues to the mandatory Virginia State Bar, which licenses and regulates lawyers. There's a lot more that advocates for the poor's legal needs might want to know to make the information more useful -- what kinds of law do you practice? Which of the many kinds of work listed in the Definitions section do you do? Do you do the pro bono through other institutions or just through your law firm? What needs do you think are out there? Any other ways you could work to meet them? What gets in the way of doing that?
So the Bar only asks lawyers this one short, innocent question, about your free-will offering of humanitarian good works, where the only wrong answer is no answer. (Or an answer that's not a number of hours.) But it makes lawyers awfully apprehensive when it shows up asking that little question but loaded for bear, bristling with hooks, nets, expulsion devices, license-grabbers, long lists and cross-references. Not in a survey like the ones the Supreme Court and Bar already send out, but as part of membership renewal, in a list of questions that gravely affect one's permission to practice law: have you been conflicted of a felony, been disciplined by another state's bar, do you have liability insurance ... ? If lawyers wonder exactly what hours they should include in the number, they need to look up the lists of definitions and alternative means of compliance (which the proposed change will lengthen) in Professional Responsibility Rule 6.1 and, especially in its Commentary. To find out the rules and penalties for not reporting or late reporting, they must look at Bar Organization Rule "19. Procedure for the Administrative Suspension of a Member." And it does it, not in a survey like the ones the Supreme Court already sends out, but as part of membership renewal and in a list of questions that gravely affect one's permission to practice law: have you been conflicted of a felony, been disciplined by another state's bar, do you have liability insurance ... ?
Just another cumulative annoyance in the process of what Virginia's great writer Florence King called being "nibbled to death by a bureaucratic duck".
Quotation is from Page 2 of