By Sylvia Novinsky

Lawyers, you have another reason to smile this week.

It’s National Celebration of Pro Bono Week, an annual initiative spearheaded by the ABA Standing Committee on Public Service to enhance and expand efforts to increase access to justice for all. The #celebrateprobono effort gives legal communities around the country an opportunity to recognize the good legal volunteer work being done. In North Carolina, we have much to celebrate in this regard.

In January 2017, the N.C. Pro Bono Resource Center established North Carolina’s first statewide voluntary reporting process. This process allows attorneys to report information about their pro bono legal service in 2016. What we heard through that process was encouraging: Attorneys reported more than 25,000 hours of pro bono legal service provided last year. Further, 89.3 percent of respondents reported providing some legal volunteerism, and 20 percent of respondents engaged in all the types of activity included in the rule: pro bono legal service, law improvement activity, non-legal community service, and financial contributions to support civil legal aid.

This reporting process also allows an opportunity for those attorneys who provide 50 or more hours of pro bono legal service, the amount encouraged by Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1, to be recognized by the Supreme Court of North Carolina for their efforts and to be inducted into the N.C. Pro Bono Honor Society. The first cohort of this society saw 170 attorney members from across the state, many of whom are N.C. Bar Association members.

While the National Celebration of Pro Bono reminds us that there is much to celebrate, there is also much more work to be done. North Carolinians eligible for civil legal services, (meaning they fall at 125 percent of the poverty level threshold ­– roughly $30,000 for a family of four) make up almost 23 percent of our state’s population, totaling 2.2 million people. Nevertheless, there is only one legal aid attorney for every 11,000 North Carolina residents eligible for legal services. This lack of capacity leads to more than 80 percent of civil legal needs of the poor going unmet each year, a gap in services that impacts basic human rights and needs – health, housing, safety, salary, family structure, and more.

However, attorney pro bono legal service can help address the access to justice gap; to compare, there is one private North Carolina attorney for every 362 people in the state. The reality is that pro bono attorneys are needed now more than ever to help low-income individuals and others shut out of the justice system. In the absence of full funding for legal aid providers so that every low-income individual with a civil legal problem has access to a lawyer, the Pro Bono Resource Center plays a vital role in recruiting pro bono attorneys to support these organizations.  Currently, there are more than 30 available pro bono projects listed on our website, ncprobono.org.  These projects range in time commitment, geographic location, skills to be utilized and developed, and subject matter.  The NCBA also has opportunities for attorneys to engage in pro bono legal service, whether through section and division projects or through programs of the N.C. Bar Foundation.

The N.C. Pro Bono Resource Center looks forward to continuing the conversation of how private attorneys can help address unmet legal needs.  But for now, let’s celebrate our profession and our pro bono work!  And to continue the celebration, make sure to keep an eye out for the next round of pro bono reporting, launching Jan. 1, 2018 – bookmark ncprobono.org/volunteer/reporting and sign up for the monthly newsletter to keep up to date about this opportunity for recognition.