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CNN Today

Pro Bono Law Work on the Decline

Aired August 21, 2000 - 1:25 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: As a profession, lawyers don't have the best reputation, but how many people do you know who routinely donate their services to people who cannot pay? It is called pro bono, and it's as much a part of legal work as motions and briefs, or at least it used to be.

Here's CNN's Deborah Feyerick.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good afternoon, Neighborhood Defenders Service, how may I assist you?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Neighborhood Defenders Service in Harlem, a place where people who can't afford lawyers rely on big-firm attorneys to volunteer their time.

MIRIAM GOHARA, NEIGHBORHOOD DEFENDERS SVC.: They're absolutely invaluable in expanding our capacity to serve our clients in civil cases and more specifically, in housing court and family court cases.

FEYERICK: But, according to "American Lawyer" magazine, attorneys at the nation's top 100 firms are cutting back on unpaid pro bono work, from 56 hours a year in 1992 to 36 hours last year; a problem for organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which services many poor clients.

THEODORE SHAW, NAACP LEGAL DEFENSE FUND: When the law firms begin to cut back on pro bono work because they have a tighter profit margin, that means that some of these cases, more of these cases, simply won't get done even if they have merit.

FEYERICK: Reasons for the pro bono downturn, legal insiders say: the nation's strong economy means law firms are busier than ever. Attorneys are working longer hours, in part, to pay for higher salaries, even for first-year associates right out of law school.

ELLEN CHAPNICK, DEAN, COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL: People feel, not too surprisingly, that if I'm paying you $130,000 a year, you should be earning as much of that back for the firm as you possibly can, in the form of billable hours, rather than doing pro bono work.

FEYERICK: The American Bar Association has a suggested, though not mandatory, pro bono guideline of 50 hours a year.

EVAN DEAN, NYC BAR ASSOCIATION: There's a rule in our rules of ethics that says a lawyer should do pro bono work. You're not going to be disbarred if you don't, but our rules are clear that it's the right thing to do.

FEYERICK: Two years ago, pro bono hours began to drop at New York based Skadden, Arps. Firm management took aggressive steps to target practice areas falling short. The result:

RONALD TABAK, PRO BONO DIR., SKADDEN, ARPS: We did not suffer any loss in profitability while we have had this large increase in pro bono.

FEYERICK (on camera): Last year, lawyers at top 100 firms averaged about eight minutes of pro bono work a day. Justice watchers fear if that continues, low and middle-income people who really need help will get no help at all.

Deborah Feyerick, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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