Lee attorneys support free work, troubled by mandate

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

Tupelo attorney Rachel Pierce says Mississippi attorneys are some of the most generous people she knows.
But the state’s largest official group of lawyers, the Mississippi Bar, aims to fight a proposal to require them to expand free, civil legal services to the poor.
Last week, Bar President Nina Stubblefield Tollison of Oxford filed the Bar leadership’s official opposition to a new state Supreme Court plan.
“The Board of Bar Commissioners expressed its collective opinion,” Tollison said, “that the proposed changes would be counterproductive to the goal of increasing delivery of legal services to the poor.”
She also attached a list of suggestions for other ways Bar members can address the problem.
Monday, its Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to oppose the change.
In late August, the Supreme Court Rules Committee on the Legal Profession asked for public comment on proposals to improve poor people’s access to legal services.
It proposes that:
– Twenty hours of free or “pro bono” services be mandatory for attorneys each year, or
– They can pay $500 a year in lieu of the hours, and
– Out-of-state attorneys will pay $500 per year.
The money will be used by the Bar to help fund civil legal assistance for the poor.
Current Bar policy suggests members give 20 hours free per year or pay $200.
Comments to the court hit 119 Wednesday, with Oct. 1 the deadline for remarks.
Pierce says she sees how a requirement, rather than a voluntary choice, can rub her colleagues the wrong way.
“I’ve found that most people, including attorneys, are far more willing to help someone in need and more likely to do a better job in providing that help if they undertake the task out of a genuine desire to assist, rather than an obligation,” she noted.
The proposal comes out of the state Supreme Court’s concern that many poor Mississippians cannot afford legal help with even the most basic problems, such as evictions, child custody or repossessions.
Legal service organizations report they are underfunded, understaffed and overworked, and they turn away thousands of people who need their help.
The Daily Journal recently asked a random sample of nearly 50 Tupelo attorneys how they felt about the proposed changes.
Respondents all favored free work but had concerns about the changes.
Jason Herring says he believes most attorneys here well exceed the 20 hours in annual, voluntary pro bono work the Bar asks of them.
“But we … should look earnestly to other methods to improve access to our legal system for all individuals,” he said.
Some of the contention about the change comes over the opt-out provision allowing attorneys to pay, rather than do free work, says Jason Shelton.
“Our firm regularly does pro bono work,” he said, noting their participation in the Mississippi Volunteers Lawyers Project.
In MVLP, Mississippi Bar members agree to take cases for free, with screening by Mississippi Rural Legal Services offices.
Guy Mitchell III, whose firm Mitchell McNutt amp& Sams also provides free assistance, says it’s not necessary for the state Supreme Court to dictate that they do so.
“I also think a requirement that can be met with a check does not accomplish the goal of making legal services more available to the poor or working poor,” he added.
He supports a voluntary program.
Ken Kantack says he’s not sure why a change is needed, because Bar records show lawyers required to report pro bono help are posting more than 45 free hours a year, which is 25 more than the current non-mandatory goal.
And solutions are more complicated than writing a check, Kantack notes.
“This is complicated by the specialization of many areas of the law and the need to allocate this (free work) equally among all lawyers,” he says.
George Dent puts it succinctly: Making free legal work mandatory may do more harm than good.
He sees objections to the numerous exceptions to who is off the hook, such as government lawyers.
The proposal, he said, “although well-intended, essentially takes the pro bono hours … and turns this charity into a tax.”
The Mississippi Bar has 8,572 active members with some 2,500 claiming exemptions to do free work.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.