Pro Bono Community Profiles: Robert Elardo, Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project

In this week’s community profile we speak with Robert Elardo, Managing Attorney of the Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, and more than twenty year veteran in pro bono management. We had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Elardo about his experience in pro bono, how the pro bono community developed in Erie County and the role he played in developing pro bono.

Mr. Elardo’s Pro Bono Experience

What led you to pro bono, how did you arrive in this position?

When I was in law school I was very interested in pro bono and wrote a paper on the subject that was published in a public law journal at my law school. Around this time, the Bar Association of Erie County was looking to start a pro bono program. Initially I was hired as a work-study student for the summer to do research on the very limited number of existing programs in the country. The Bar wanted to know if there was a need in Erie County and whether the lawyers in the private bar would lose money by participating. I wrote a report that said there was in fact a need, that Erie County should have a program and that it would not take away money from lawyers. But the plan sat because there was no money to implement it. Then the Private Attorney Involvement requirement came down from LSC. I learned that the Bar Association of Erie County had started a pro bono program and that they were looking for someone to fill the position. I applied, got the job in 1984 and I have been here ever since.

What inspired you to stick with pro bono and with the same program for so long?

I really feel good about the work that we do. Pro bono work and the fundraising that comes with it can be frustrating sometimes. But hearing the stories about people’s issues and how they get resolved, seeing how happy the clients are and hearing from the lawyers about the good they are doing, and how good it makes them feel, is very invigorating. The idea of what we are doing here is something I always feel good about. We can not save everyone but we save a lot of them.

How have you seen the pro bono landscape change during the nearly 30 years you have been with the Volunteer Lawyers Project?

 It certainly has changed. I think developing pro bono in any community is a long-term project. I have really seen how pro bono has become a much more accepted thing in the legal community for lawyers and law firms in Erie County. In the beginning there was a core group that wanted to volunteer but most lawyers were not receptive when you asked them if they would handle cases for free because, at that time, it was not really something they had thought about. They thought there were enough clients who they had trouble collecting payment from so they could not see the value of more non-paying clients.

But the organized bars have done such a good job of publicizing pro bono and the awards. We also give awards for participation here at the Volunteer Lawyers Project. The publicity about all the good works that are done with pro bono has certainly changed things. There was a time when mandatory pro bono was being considered in New York after a report indicated that there was a huge need for free legal services and that this need was never going to be met without mandatory pro bono. The New York State Bar responded by pulling together to show that voluntary pro bono could in fact meet the need and that mandatory pro bono was not necessary. This led to the creation of the New York State Bar Association President’s Committee on Access to Justice. The Committee hired a director of pro bono affairs and created a department on pro bono in the state bar. In the long run, as a consequence of the backlash that came from the proposal for mandatory pro bono, the voluntary pro bono community came together and flourished to become what we see today.

Early next week: Part 2: Developing the Local and National Pro Bono Community

~ Adrienne Packard

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