Studying Pro Bono at the State Level: Nebraska Completes Survey of Attorneys

nebraska

Earlier this month, Nebraska released the results of its statewide pro bono survey, Supporting Justice in Nebraska: A Report on the Pro Bono Work of Nebraska’s Lawyers. The survey, conducted at the beginning of 2015, asked Nebraska attorneys to give us the skinny on all things pro bono: their attitudes, reservations, and confessions of how much or how little pro bono they did in 2014.

The Nebraska survey was developed based on American Bar Association’s third national survey of attorneys, the results of which are found in Supporting Justice III: A Report on the Pro Bono Work of America’s Lawyers, providing a snapshot of the pro bono terrain in America. Interested in developing a more nuanced look at local pro bono trends and behaviors, Legal Aid of Nebraska, the Nebraska State Bar Association, and the Nebraska Supreme Court Committee on Self Represented Litigation all collaborated to survey Nebraska’s 5,000+ attorneys. The ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service provided support for this endeavor.

So, what have Nebraska attorneys been up to?

The report shows that 58.3% of the respondents provided pro bono service in 2014 and almost one fourth provided at least 50 hours of service throughout the year. Like the national findings, the majority of attorneys believe pro bono is either somewhat or very important, but are most typically deterred from providing pro bono by time constraints. The report, however, deviates from Supporting Justice III in a number of ways, showing that state-level surveys may provide useful alternative lenses for thinking about pro bono.

The Nebraska survey experiments with a more concrete and explicit definition of pro bono than was provided in the national survey in an attempt to reduce the subjectivity commonly associated with self-reporting. In addition, while the national report focused on practice setting differences, the Nebraska report delves into geographic, gender and age differences within the state’s attorney population. Specifically, it takes steps towards teasing out some of the influences of family, gender, and professionalism. The report by no means settles such questions, but certainly demonstrates that the meaning we ascribe to pro bono and the subsequent decisions we make to take a case or not are complicated and intertwined with our personal and professional lives.

The report concludes with a set of policy and program recommendations. Although some of these recommendations respond to Nebraska-specific trends, they may also be useful for other jurisdictions contemplating new ways to expand engagement of the private bar. For example, the report identifies opportunities to enlist more lawyers to do the types of pro bono that most directly benefit poor clients. Strategies include building and ensuring institutional support for pro bono; increasing pro bono initiatives that are organized and supported by employers; educating attorneys about the resources and opportunities available; and pursuing innovative approaches that respond to the attorney population’s interests, needs and personal constraints.

Which states will be next to collect this information?

The ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service is now contemplating making this survey tool available and providing assistance to those who are considering replication of this survey in other states. Given the ways in which the Nebraska report deviated from the national report, state level replication of this survey might provide some interesting insights. Building on the national level findings from Supporting Justice III by collecting state-specific data can also help us understand the nuances of pro bono activity and develop evidence-based innovations. Any inquiries regarding state replications of this survey should be directed to April at april.faith-slaker@americanbar.org.

April Faith-Slaker is the Director of the ABA Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives and a Senior Staff Attorney for the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service.

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