Washington lawyers are recognized nationally for pro bono contributions, but client demand still surpasses supply
By Colin Rigley
Michael Terasaki started his new role in what he calls “Zoom land.”
“I don’t know anything outside of the COVID paradigm, which is a really interesting place to start,” said Terasaki, who a little over a year ago took on the role of manager of the Washington Pro Bono Council, a consortium of 16 volunteer lawyer programs in the state. “I don’t know what normal looks like.”
For Terasaki and others who coordinate pro bono and low bono legal services in Washington, the new normal amid undulating cycles of pandemic chaos has been a stew of new opportunities and new limitations, rising needs for legal aid, and limited resources to meet it. It’s not necessarily the case that volunteerism has fallen dramatically—it’s dipped slightly, he said—but the pandemic clobbered the available legal aid with a sudden and dramatic increase in clients.
“I think a lot of volunteers are just exhausted at this point,” Terasaki said. “A lot of them were people who were volunteering before—they didn’t answer some new call. They’re just overtaxed. They would like to keep doing it, but the need hasn’t really gone down as we hoped it would.”
WASHINGTON RANKS HIGH; THE NEED REMAINS HIGHER
That large group of now-exhausted volunteers is what places Washington high in the rankings nationwide for the amount of pro bono work its legal community provides. And the state has a solid reputation for its legal aid system, and the programs and training available to lawyers willing to donate their time and expertise.
“In Washington state, pro bono really covers a lot; I think a lot more than other states when it comes to legal aid work,” Terasaki said.
In fact, according to one of the most recent studies by the American Bar Association (ABA), Washington lawyers gave more of their time, on average, than lawyers in any other state surveyed. As reported in the recently published ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2021,11 www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2021/0721/polp.pdf#page=82. legal practitioners in Washington contributed:
• An average of 57 hours of pro bono service per lawyer for all lawyers—the highest among all states surveyed.
• Two-thirds of all lawyers in Washington (68 percent) reported doing at least some pro bono work.
• Among those, the average amount of pro bono work performed was 77 hours.
• Washington also had the lowest percentage of lawyers who have never performed pro bono work—10 percent.
The report cites a 2016 study by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and the Center for Pro Bono,22 www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/probono_public_service/ls_pb_supporting_justice_iv_final.authcheckdam.pdf#page=42. in which 24 states were surveyed. That study further states that “Washington state was also one of the highest in terms of the percent of their attorney population that performed 80 or more hours of pro bono in 2016, with 18.6 percent of the attorneys reporting this.”
More recently, according to WSBA’s own statistics, 2,453 WSBA members contributed a total of 178,220 hours (112,042 direct and 66,178 indirect), or about 73 hours per member, in 2020. Of those, more than one-third (891 members) logged at least 50 hours; 18 percent (441 members) logged at least 80 hours.33 Counted in these WSBA statistics are both attorneys and Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLTs). In 2020, 12 LLLTs (24 percent of LLLTs) reported a total of 1,127 hours of pro bono service, for an average of 94 hours per LLLT.
Nationally, the average lawyer provided about 37 hours of pro bono services in 2018, according to the ABA, and only approximately 20 percent of all lawyers met the ABA goal of providing 50 hours or more, which was down from 36 percent reported in an earlier survey, conducted in 2013.
In 2019, according to Terasaki, Washington volunteer lawyer programs alone contributed more than 35,000 hours of legal aid and served 20,400 clients. That included 16,800 legal consultations and brief services and 3,580 full representations of clients.
Although Washington’s numbers are strong, more help is always needed and always welcome from willing volunteers. Ask any of the folks who coordinate legal aid clinics and other pro bono services and you’ll hear a consistent message: anyone can help and any amount of help makes a difference.
“I think every lawyer really wants justice; you want to see the right outcomes for people and I think we forget how intimidating the courthouse can be and how intimidating legal matters can be because we live them every day,” said Yakima County Volunteer Attorney Services Executive Director Quinn Dalan. “And lawyers make a difference—they can if they’re willing to get involved.”
TECHNOLOGY HELPS SOME BUT NOT ALL
One positive for the legal profession that resulted from the pandemic was that it strapped a notoriously old-school system to a booster rocket hurtling toward a more technologically oriented future. Lawyers had to adapt to a remote world and adopt the technology and best practices to do so. Particularly for pro bono services like legal clinics and client consultations, this shift expanded the reach of legal services to provide easier access for those who need them.
The shift to remote work provides more avenues for attorneys to reach beyond their immediate community and help people in more isolated parts of the state, which also tend to have significant unmet legal needs due to high poverty rates and the presence of migrant workers with specific legal concerns. For many of these difficult-to-reach clients, the new normal has been a blessing, said Skagit Legal Aid Executive Director Andrew Dugan.
“Attorneys in Seattle are able to get involved in more rural communities without leaving Seattle,” Dugan said.
Of the 31,160 members licensed in Washington state, more than half (17,468) are located in King County, according to the most recent WSBA Member Licensing Counts.44 www.wsba.org/docs/default-source/licensing/membership-info-data/countdemo_20190801.pdf?sfvrsn=ae6c3ef1_150. In November 2019, the WSBA began focusing on the topic of “legal deserts,” areas where access to legal services and representation is limited, which led to the formation of a Rural Practice Program55 www.wsba.org/for-legal-professionals/member-support/rural-practice-project. and then this year to the new Small Town and Rural Committee.66 www.wsba.org/connect-serve/committees-boards-other-groups/small-town-and-rural-committee.
But the blessing of virtual consultations for attorneys and some clients can also be a burden for those who lack the tools and infrastructure to access remotely delivered legal services. So providers have had to adapt to meet these clients where they are.
“What we have done is create a hybrid model now,” Dugan said. “My organization will go and will set up the computers at what’s called the East County Resource Center.”
Skagit Legal Aid also set up a drive-thru legal clinic—assembling in a parking lot on a Saturday morning where people could arrive by car for volunteers to meet with them. Any document preparation and document review was then handled remotely later. “Those we’ve actually found to be successful and people enjoyed it,” Dugan said.
He added that the push to remote interactions allows volunteers more flexibility to assist pro bono clients without substantially disrupting their other business.
“Especially to appear in court, having attorneys being able to make an appearance from the office is so much easier than having to go to [the] courthouse, wait for three hours for court to get called,” Dugan said.
EXPERTISE NOT REQUIRED
Volunteer coordinators tend to emphasize the ease of providing pro bono legal work in the hope of attracting more volunteers because, even with the immense contributions from the state’s legal community year after year, available legal services continue to fall short of the need. And the need also varies across practice areas. Widespread public attention on a mounting eviction crisis resulted in large influxes of public funding and new legislation in Washington to enhance legal aid for housing disputes; for instance, a new law adopted this year (Engrossed Second Substitute Senate Bill 5160) guarantees a right to counsel for indigent tenants facing an eviction.
Family law issues, on the other hand, haven’t received the same public attention, even as domestic violence and other family law matters have spiked during the pandemic and the number of family law attorneys and volunteers hasn’t kept up with demand. Exacerbating the problem is that such legal issues are often complex and nuanced and not as easily resolved as, for example, unpaid rent covered by public funds to avoid tenant eviction.
“The highest need is always in family law, the most valuable specialist if we can find someone to volunteer, it’s a family law attorney,” said Terasaki of the Pro Bono Council. “It’s a situation where rich people, upper middle class, work through family law issues with attorneys, and everyone else basically doesn’t.”
Yet volunteer coordinators face challenges in convincing non-family-law lawyers to lend their support in these cases. When it comes to volunteering, expertise in a specific area of law is not a prerequisite to being able to make a difference.
“We can’t just wait until we’re experts on something before we can get in and fix it because I think lawyers underestimate how much they already know,” said Dalan of Yakima Volunteer Attorney Services.
All volunteer programs have malpractice insurance, Terasaki stressed. Additionally, there are myriad CLEs and other resources available for lawyers to become more skilled in an area in which they are unfamiliar, not to mention wide support networks of other volunteers willing to help and answer questions.
“In the era that we’re living in right now and where everyone is hopefully becoming more aware and cognizant of racism in our country and the way that different systems treat people differently and the importance that every client is not the same … there is a huge need for legal services, particularly in regard for things that make people feel safe and have security,” said Dugan of Skagit Legal Aid. “Finding ways to get involved in whatever ways you can, even if it’s just a couple of hours a year, you can make a huge impact on one client’s life.”
3. Counted in these WSBA statistics are both attorneys and Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLTs). In 2020, 12 LLLTs (24 percent of LLLTs) reported a total of 1,127 hours of pro bono service, for an average of 94 hours per LLLT.