Approach to pro bono `a good motivator'

Rules suggest amount of service

lawyers must report hours worked

September 30, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

As a Baltimore bankruptcy lawyer, Mark Scurti ought to be all dollars and cents. But for several hours each week, he forgets about the bottom line and helps needy clients for free.

"I believe in pro bono so much," said Scurti, 39, who also volunteers as president of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, which recruits lawyers for unpaid work. "It's so necessary."

Lawyers throughout the state are being encouraged to follow Scurti's example, under rules that for the first time set a specific target for pro bono work: 50 hours a year.

Maryland lawyers are not required to perform free work. But now they must report how much they do each year to the state's highest court. Only one other state, Florida, requires lawyers to disclose the number of volunteer hours worked.

"There's a little bit of coercive effect, but I figure when you're coercing someone to do something good, that's not really coercion," Judge Deborah S. Eyler of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals said with a laugh, referring to mandatory reporting.

Eyler is chairwoman of the Maryland Judicial Commission on Pro Bono, which proposed the 50-hour goal and mandatory reporting.

Previously, the rules urged lawyers to perform an unspecified amount of pro bono work. Reporting the amount of service to the Maryland Court of Appeals was voluntary.

The court sets rules for lawyers' professional conduct. The change took effect July 1.

There are signs that the new rules are inspiring voluntarism. At a pro bono "job fair" held at a downtown Baltimore hotel last week, dozens of lawyers went from booth to booth, collecting information from groups that could use their help.

The event was sponsored by Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, a Baltimore firm that prides itself on a long tradition of pro bono work.

Among the crowd was Richard P. Kidwell, managing attorney for claims and litigation for the Johns Hopkins Health System.

When he was an attorney in private practice, Kidwell did some legal work for free, representing needy students in disputes with Baltimore County schools. But that stopped after he joined Hopkins about eight years ago.

"Traditionally, in-house lawyers haven't been involved," said Kidwell, 48. "But that's got to change. We've got to participate."

Kidwell picked up pamphlets from about a dozen organizations at the event, including the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, Legal Services to the Elderly and the Arc of Baltimore. He planned to present the material to colleagues at a staff meeting at Hopkins.

"The new rules are incentive enough to get involved and try to give something back," Kidwell said. "A little kick in the pants doesn't hurt."

Some lawyers have never needed a nudge. Scurti averages 200 hours of pro bono service a year, the equivalent of five weeks of work given away.

Barbara L. Ayres, a medical malpractice defense lawyer with Whiteford, Taylor, volunteers to help disabled children and their families get the services they need from public schools. She spends about 40 hours a year on that pro bono work, despite her busy professional and personal schedules.

"It's really not a heavy load," Ayres said. "If everybody just did half that much, the legal needs would be met probably. I really feel strongly that if everybody would pitch in a little, we could go a long way toward solving the problem of people not getting representation in our system."

No one knows how much pro bono work is done in Maryland because about 7 percent of lawyers disclosed the number of hours they performed when reporting was voluntary, said Sharon E. Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center.

Last year, more than 9,000 cases were handled on a pro bono basis in Maryland, Goldsmith said. That's up from about 7,100 in 1999.

But the need for more pro bono help remains great on a wide range of legal matters - from class action civil rights suits brought by the Public Justice Center to simple real estate closings for Sandtown Habitat for Humanity.

The new rules are expected to help fill those needs.

"I think it's a good motivator," said Winifred C. Borden, executive director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, which matches lawyers with people in need. "We have a lot of hopes for it."

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