Charity is our own business

by Sylvia L. Paoli

The idea of pro bono made "mandatory" causes me to see red! It is implying that unless one publicizes one's pro bono work to a designated body, one does not do any pro bono work. I'm sure I am not the only member of the bar to say nothing could be further from the truth. 

I have, in some years, probably donated more free legal time and advice to individuals and organizations than I have billed from my office. But I don't go around proclaiming myself to be some kind of outstanding citizen of the bar -- and I'm frankly getting tired of being beaten over the head about the need to do pro bono work.

I couldn't begin to describe how many times I have charged a client half or less of a normal fee because they couldn't afford to pay it all, or how many times the initial retainer has run out, the case isn't finished, the client can't pay, and we just go forward and do our very best job on the case and complete it -- paid or not. What do you think would happen to an associate in a big firm who did that? 

We don't turn clients over to the collection agencies and we don't sue. I consider such work done without pay to be pro bono.

We are a two-man office: my husband and I. Our income doesn't even remotely compare with those who seem to tout mandatory pro bono the loudest. 

I take a fair number of appointments from various appellate projects for indigent appeals. I receive $65 an hour -- and not per hour I actually put in but per hour the appellate project deems is reasonable of the total I submit. That sum is barely enough to cover my office overhead for those hours. I frankly consider that to be pro bono work. I certainly couldn't pay my bills nor support my office on that kind of money ? nor, I'm sure, could all of those who loudly scream for mandatory pro bono.

During years as general counsel for an international pilots' association, I developed considerable expertise in non-profit law. I have used that expertise for numerous small groups needing a recognized tax exempt status, for no fees or minimal fees. I consider that pro bono.

As an aviator with a fair knowledge of aviation law, I have donated my legal expertise to numerous organizations, ranging from city airport management to Civil Air Patrol. At times, such work can be virtually full time. I consider all of that pro bono.

I've never publicized a minute of such work nor even spoken of it until now. It is my belief that one's charity need not be broadcast from a corner podium, and, frankly, is no one else's business.

As a certified appellate specialist, I see all too much evidence of incompetence in the practice of law. Why doesn't the State Bar do something about that, instead of further hampering those of us in solo practice or small firms who are just trying to do a good job and pay our bills?

Maybe the folks pushing mandatory pro bono should limit it to big firms with huge billings and let those folks -- who bill for every second they work -- do some free work for a change.

Why don't you address the pro bono issues to them and leave the rest of us alone? Most of us do pro bono work -- we just don't advertise it and we're getting tired of hearing about it.

Sylvia L. Paoli is an attorney in Tustin.