EDITORIAL: Pro bono adequacy

A difference of opinion between the Mississippi Bar Association and the Mississippi Supreme Court about providing free legal work for poor people would remain an internal debate were it not so important to thousands of Mississippians who qualify for what’s widely called pro bono assistance from an attorney.
The longer description is pro bono publico – for the public good – and that is more accurate in understanding what’s at stake. Competent representation for all clients is an ideal, and it is also a historical method for ensuring that justice in civil cases is a matter of even-handedness across the board. When justice is served respect for the law is maintained.
A new pro bono rule proposed by the state Supreme Court would change the pro bono recommendations to requirements and would apply to many but not all of the 8,500 lawyers in our state.
The proposed new rule would make pro bono participation mandatory (20 hours per year minimum) or require payment of a $500 fee to be used in providing attorneys for the poor.
One catch is that about 2,500 of 8,500 Mississippi lawyers seek exemptions from the pro bono standard, and those who participate think the responsibility should be more broadly shared.
It’s also easy for anyone who works for a living to understand how being told that charity is required grates on people used to independent decision-making.
However, the need is compelling.
The proposed required rule reflects concern on the court and elsewhere that many poor Mississippians cannot afford legal help for even the most basic legal processes.
Respondents to Journal inquiries favored free work but had concerns about the changes.
Guy Mitchell III, whose firm, Mitchell McNutt & Sams, provides free assistance, also voices reservations about the adequacy of the $500 buyout.
“I (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 told the Daily Journal’s court reporter, Patsy Brumfield.
Several other lawyers agreed and made other specific points in favor of voluntary compliance.
We believe the Bar and the court can come to an agreement with further discussions:
• Examine the number of exemptions granted and try to reduce those;
• Strengthen expectations within the Bar and push to increase per capita pro bono work within the lawyers’ rank-and-file.
The sure way to avoid a mandate from the court is to voluntarily meet a high-profile, public-interest need – one many Mississippians can’t afford.

NEMS Daily Journal