Md. lawyers fall short in free help for poor

Fewer than half reported at least 50 pro bono hours of legal help, report says

January 24, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Maryland's lawyers provided nearly 1 million hours in free legal assistance in 2002 - bolstered by $2.2 million donated to help the state's poor with legal services - but the state's 30,000 lawyers generally fell short of the annual goal of 50 hours of free legal work each, a newly released report says.

Fewer than half of the lawyers - 47.8 percent - reported doing any pro bono legal work for the poor or nonprofit organizations, according to the report.

"The results show that Maryland has a long way to go to achieve the target goal of 50 hours of pro bono service," said the report, done by a private company for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

About one-third of the lawyers living in Maryland have offices outside the state.

The report, the first analysis of lawyers' help for the poor, provides a baseline for the state court system's plan to improve legal services to the poor. For the past two years, the court has ordered lawyers to report how much pro bono work they do and what financial contributions they make to agencies that offer legal services to the needy.

The report says that more lawyers in the rural areas of the state - the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland - reported providing free legal help than lawyers elsewhere. The lowest percentage of full-time lawyers reporting at least 50 hours of free legal service was in Howard County, closely followed by Baltimore County, Charles County and Baltimore City, the report states.

"There are huge needs, and they are not all being met. We need to take a really hard look at Baltimore City and see what we can do to engage more of the lawyers there," said Sharon E. Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.

She found it "a very positive thing" that nearly 50 percent of Maryland lawyers report pro bono work. "But I think it also challenges us to look at those regions where there is not a lot of pro bono or reporting of it," she said.

The report underscores the need for more practitioners to help low-income people in the area of family law.

"That is the greatest mismatch, between client need and volunteer interest," said Winnie C. Borden, executive director of the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. "There is a tidal wave of individuals who are poor and who are trying to get some sort of relief for some domestic matter."

Another challenge, Goldsmith said, is to find more real estate and business-related volunteer opportunities for lawyers who specialize in those fields.

Lawyers said because this was the first year of reporting, there was some confusion over what to report, which they suspect led some to underestimate their volunteer efforts.

The report "shows how much lawyers are doing now" and will help recently established committees in each jurisdiction devise a plan to help meet local needs for legal services, said Harry S. Johnson, president of the Maryland State Bar Association.

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