Pro Bono Publico – “I Care A Lot About This Work.”

When an attorney does pro bono work, it’s seen as giving back. In some cases, the matter might be categorized as charity work. Usually, attorneys appreciate the recognition that such work brings about.  Pro bono work also comes in handy when things are at a standstill; when the economic slow down first hit, thousands of attorneys fought the slump by turning to pro bono work in areas where they were especially needed, such as in foreclosure prevention.

So if a busy attorney can manage to fit a few hours a week in on unpaid behind-the-scenes work, are these cases given short shrift?  In the case of one New York attorney, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.  “I treat my pro bono matters just like my corporate matters,” said Elyse Jones Cowgill, an associate at New York-based Davis Polk & Wardwell.  “I care a lot about this work.”

A recent Wall Street Journal Associated Press pick up told of how Cowgill’s client, a 19-year old from New Guinea, “wept” when Cowgill won asylum in the States for her.  

If the young girl’s hearing officer had decided to send her back home to the island in the Southwest Pacific, she would have faced genital mutilation as part of the country’s cultural or religious initiation of young girls into society.  Cowgill’s client would have also been married off to an older relative without her consent, per the WSJ mention.  (This young lady, we are told, had felt “powerless”. )

In addition to allowing lawyers to be of service in critical cases like this one, working pro bono pays off in other ways–like hands-on experience. Cowgill, as a new associate, developed client relationships, wrote briefs, interviewed witnesses, appeared before judges and argued a criminal appeal, says the WSJ.  

In NY alone, there are “an estimated 2 million hours of free legal work that some of New York’s 161,000 registered lawyers do annually,” according to the WSJ. 

Apparently, this is still only a fraction of what is needed.  In the same region of the country, there’s an overflow of disability claims, domestic abuse, eviction, foreclosure and workplace rights cases where the indigent are desirous of such help. 

So what happens to these people when they are not able to find adequate legal representation?  “We’re in a time in which the need is increasing exponentially in the midst of the continuing economic downturn,” says attorney-in-chief Steven Banks of the Legal Aid Society in New York City.  Banks explains that they have to turn away eight out of nine people needing civil legal help, for the “essentials” of life.  “Unfortunately,” [those who can’t afford representation] “will end up among the 2.3 million New Yorkers who are handling their cases on their own in courts.” This, he stresses, is not by choice.

Although this paints a picture of New York’s specific demographics, it’s not way off what is needed in other parts of the country. There are many other states that say that their registered attorneys should do 50 hours per year—more than the 20 required by New York.  Some other states (seven in total) require annual reporting.  Yet lawyers are not required to do “pro bono publico” work which, in Latin, means doing good for the public.  The Code of Professional Responsibility for New York lawyers says that each lawyer should “aspire to provide at least 20 hours of pro bono service” annually to people with limited means, or to groups that help them. 

When considering the perks of such projects, one might reflect on the thread of justice which would be woven into the fabric of society by taking on such cases–especially in situations so dire that the client weeps with relief at the outcome.  To read more, go to:



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