The New Year is upon us and I hope that 2014 is a happy, healthy and fulfilling year for each and every one of our members. One thing I would like to see in the New Year is for the mandatory pro bono reporting requirements to be eliminated in their entirety. As most of you are probably aware (although I have, at times, been surprised to find out how many are not), as part of the biennial attorney registration, you must now report two things regarding your pro bono activities to OCA: (a) the number of voluntary unpaid pro bono hours you have performed and (b) the dollar amount of voluntary financial contributions you made to organizations primarily or substantially engaged in the provision of legal services to the underserved and to the poor.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against lawyers voluntarily performing pro bono work or donating money to organizations that provide legal services. In fact, lawyers have a long and honorable tradition of doing such things voluntarily. Indeed our Rules of Professional Conduct contain an aspirational goal of providing pro bono legal services to the needy. However, the mandatory pro bono reporting requirements are just wrong on a number of levels.
First, there is no denying that the mandatory reporting requirements are coercive. Once the hours and financial contributions are reported on the biennial registration form, they become available for the public and the media to obtain and publicize or use as they see fit. This certainly makes “voluntary” pro bono not so voluntary any more. Will attorneys seeking political office or judgeships feel compelled to perform more pro bono hours and make more financial donations to legal service organizations so that they will look like “better” candidates? If so, haven’t we, to some degree, crossed the line from “voluntary” to “mandatory”?
Second, in my view, the reporting of financial contributions is an invasion of privacy and certainly none of OCA’s business. Whether an attorney chooses to contribute to his or her church, synagogue, law school, college or a charitable organization the provides legal services is, quite frankly, nobody’s business. Moreover if an attorney cannot make such contributions in a particular year because of personal reasons (e.g having a sick child, three kids in college or just not making enough money to get by) why should this "failure" to make charitable contributions be reported to OCA and potentially published to the world? How does the amount of financial contributions have any bearing on an attorney’s fitness or competence to practice law?
Third, this focus on reporting pro bono activities ignores and therefore minimizes the numerous other things that lawyers do without compensation that benefit society and the administration of justice. For example, many lawyers donate their time to serve on boards of charitable organizations, perform bar association activities, act as arbitrators in small claims court and engage in many similar charitable and civic activities which do not qualify as pro bono.
Finally, one has to wonder why these new rules were passed without any notice to any organized bar, including the New York State Bar Association, and therefore there was no opportunity to comment on the rules before they were imposed on attorneys.
Turning to another topic, the end of 2013 also marked the retirement of the Hon John A. Fusco from a long and distinguished career on the Bench. He will be sorely missed. After many years as a private practitioner, he has ably served Staten Island in many positions including as member of the City Council, Surrogate and Supreme Court Justice. His tireless work ethic, professional demeanor and desire to simply do what is right and just in all cases that have come before him provide a great example for all of us. He leaves some big shoes to fill. I wish him many happy and healthy years in his “retirement.” However, not surprisingly, Judge Fusco will continue to serve the citizens of Staten Island in his new position as Counsel to the Boro President. The judicial system’s loss will certainly be the Boro President’s gain.