Pro bono not always glamorous, but necessary

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Tim Shutz says some of his most interesting legal cases have been ones that he volunteered for — including a pro bono death row appeal for an Oklahoma inmate.
So when the Colorado Springs attorney heard about the Supreme Court’s pro bono program, he signed up his firm, agreeing that the attorneys would average 50 donated hours during the year.
The firm fell short of its commitment, but Shutz signed up again, saying he believes the work is rewarding and necessary.
“We’re just one of many firms in Colorado Springs that adopted the policy,” he said. “We do it primarily for individuals or for organizations that help indigent individuals. There are people who can’t afford to receive any legal help, and that’s who the program is intended to serve.”
2006 was the first year the Supreme Court pushed the plan, and 43 firms participated, said Judge Greg Hobbs.
“We just had an opportunity to recognize those firms,” he said. “And it’s really something attorneys should do. Rule 6.1 is an aspiration goal and says attorneys should provide 50 hours of free work a year for people who can’t afford it, but need access to justice.”
The hours are treated the same as billable hours, Hobbs said, with the expectation that pro bono work is given as high a priority as paid work. Of the 43 firms, 35 reached the 50-hour goal, Hobbs said. And all have agreed to perform the same amount of work in 2007.
“We didn’t start it until March 1,” he said. “So some firms didn’t have a full year. But it’s important that none of the firms have dropped out — they’re going to keep trying it again.”
Deborah Adams, a single-practice family law attorney, did provide 50 hours of service. She said she worked on one divorce case.
Helping indigent clients is not new to Adams, who worked at Colorado Legal Services and as a public defender before opening her own practice.
“I’ve always worked with poor clients,” she said. “And I got a lot out of that. So I continued to do it after I went into private practice.”
Adams participated in El Paso County’s program, but commends the Supreme Court for getting involved.
“I think that really encourages people,” she said. “It’s a great movement.”
Pro-bono work can involve all kinds of legal guidance, Hobbs said. It isn’t always high-profile death row cases. Many of the firms worked on lease agreements, individual rights cases, domestic cases and family law cases.
The attorneys’ efforts help Colorado Legal Services, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal help to indigent individuals. But CLS’s services are limited, Hobbs said.
“Colorado Legal Services can only serve one out of every two people who qualify for help,” he said. “That’s not enough. They need attorneys in order to access justice. And every bit helps. I’m very proud of this program, and I’m very proud of the firms who stepped up to help.”
The justice system can be complex and requires a licensed attorney to navigate, he said.
“There are some pitfalls,” Hobbs said. “They need a professional to help them understand the law and their individual rights; they have the value of having representation by attorneys.”
Shutz said he felt good about his firms’ efforts, with attorneys averaging about 40 hours for the year.
“I’m confident we’ll make it this year,” he said. “I really used strict standards and tried to make sure we had quality time devoted to the indigent.”
Most attorneys were already performing pro bono work, he said.
“I’ve always been cognizant of a professional obligation, and most attorneys do pro bono work,” Shutz said. “It’s not a hardship. I’ve been able to do stuff that has personal interest to me. The work I’ve done pro bono has been some of the most interesting work I’ve ever done.”
Shutz helped residents of the Myron Stratton House, a low-income housing development, who were threatened with eviction. He said other attorneys worked on social service, disability cases.
“I’m not unique,” he said. “This kind of work is done by most lawyers. As a profession, we feel it’s important.”
Adams agreed, saying that attorneys give of their time in a variety of ways: sitting on boards as well as pro bono work.
“Most of the attorneys I know do some sort of charity work,” she said. “Many do work that they don’t get credit for.”
Maryann Corey oversees the pro bono program for the El Paso County Bar Association. She said 21 local firms participated in the program last year.
“Many of the attorneys take more than one case,” she said. “Others assist with clinics that the Bar Association sponsors. We have a very active participation in El Paso County.”
Amy.Gillentine@csbj.com