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Free, not easy

Recently implemented new rules concerning pro bono work by Mississippi attorneys are being welcome by the legal community while highlighting the myriad of issues and concerns involved in offering free legal services to the needy.

Last month, the Mississippi Supreme Court announced revised Rules of Professional Conduct for Lawyers. The Court said the new rules, which went into effect immediately, are an effort to increase the availability of legal services to low-income individuals by allaying attorneys’ concerns when offering free legal counsel.

“I think the new rules are good in that they clarify the obligations and responsibilities of attorneys when they take a pro bono case,” said Charles Ozier, shareholder with Wise Carter Child & Caraway, P.A., and liaison for the firm’s joint program with the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyer Project (MVLP).

Ozier said under the new rules, an attorney and a client would draft and sign a letter specifying exactly what services are to be rendered. After the work is, the parties would draft another letter and sign it verifying that those services had been rendered to the client’s satisfaction.

One of the most significant components of the amendments is allowing attorneys to offer piecework on a case.

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess Dickinson, a member of the Access to Justice Commission that proposed the rule changes, said lawyers often want to help someone facing a legal problem, “…but the potential client is unable to pay and the lawyer cannot commit the time and resources to handle the entire matter. This rule change will allow the lawyer to provide some help, rather than none at all.”

The new rules would allow an attorney to handle just part of a case. For example, a lawyer may provide counsel and advice and may draft letters or pleadings with or without appearing as counsel of record.

This is an effort to reassure attorneys. According to the Mississippi Supreme Court, “Lawyers historically have treated limited scope representation with great caution, fearing the possibility that offering part of the work without providing complete representation would be a violation of their professional obligations.”

This piecework component also helps protect attorneys’ integrity. “Gee” Ogletree Jr., chairman of the Executive Committee at the law firm of Adams and Reese, LLP, as well as chairman of the MVLP, said the new rules ensure that an attorney is competent to execute the work required. For example, he said an attorney could be referred a divorce case, but the attorney has not done a divorce in years and is not familiar with that area of law. Rather than decline the case entirely, an attorney could agree to handle part or parts of a case with which she is comfortable.

Another issue surrounding pro bono legal services, conflict of interest, is also addressed by the new rules. Concerns about conflicts of interest between a law firms’ clients and the recipients of free legal services have discouraged some lawyers from volunteering their time to answer legal hotlines or participate in free legal clinics, according to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

LaVerne Edney, general counsel for the MVLP, said, “Attorneys have been concerned about their involvement in clinics and helping with the legal line because they don’t have the opportunity to get those names (of clients) in advance so that a conflicts check can be done with their firms. Especially with the larger law firms, they are concerned they may be conflicted out of a case later on.”

Edney and the MVLP are highly supportive of the new amendments. MVLP is a statewide organization dedicated to help the needy get fair legal representation. But some areas of the state have few practicing lawyers, and finding an attorney to take a pro bono case from the MVLP can be difficult, especially if representation is expected from the case’s start to finish.

Borden

Borden

“This will be helpful with those attorneys who had those concerns to know that they can come to a clinic and assist people and be done with it. It allows attorneys to do just that portion of the case,” Edney said. “We cover the entire state. It’s very difficult to find (volunteer) attorneys in some remote counties. What we can do now is have attorneys from Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties, where we have an abundance of volunteers, prepare the pleadings. Then a lawyer in the area where the client lives would have a simpler task of filing the case and getting an order signed.”

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said in a statement: “Today’s challenging economic circumstances have created heightened needs by members of the public to have access to our courts. These amendments will facilitate opportunities for attorneys across the state to participate in pro bono legal services.”

Lisa Borden, pro bono shareholder with the firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, said her firm has seen an up tick in requests for free services since the economy soured. The firm’s referrals from the MVLP and other organizations focused on legal services for the needy remain generally unchanged. However, she said Baker Donelson has seen a noticeable increase in prospective clients contacting the firm directly seeking free help.

Borden said the firm expanded its pro bono work three years ago as the economy faltered. Over the first two years of the expanded program, Baker Donelson saw its volume of pro bono work double. Figures are not in yet for last year.

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