This week I have been talking with legal practitioners about the prospect of improving access to pro bono services in Lithuania. The mentality towards pro bono is very different here than in the United States certainly, where approximately 3% of billable hours are worked pro bono. We have been frequently told that we are crazy for attempting to increase pro bono services, and that it will never work. Still, I am optimistic that we can see some improvement.
There is a difference of attitude with respect to publicity here. One of the major reasons why firms in the United States engage in pro bono activity is for the good press. Firms feel that it is good for business to exhibit social responsibility, and that this will attract clients. Lithuanian attorneys have found this argument unpersuasive. In fact, they seem to want nothing to do with the publicity that comes from pro bono services. There is a concern that if a firm advertises itself as engaging in pro bono work, then there will be a long queue of clients at the door the following morning demanding services with no means to pay, and that it would be too big of a time-drain to turn them away. Almost all clients are gained through referrals, and clients who are unable to pay for their services are more likely to refer other clients in a similar financial situation, which firms view as counter-productive.
Firms here are engaged in a prestige game. Pro bono publicity is bad, because it sends the message that you don’t have enough paying clients. Advertisements and solicitations are bad for the same reason - they reek of desperation for more clients (there are of course exceptions - there are a group of attorneys in Vilnius who are always willing to talk to the media about ongoing cases, whether they are involved in the case or not, but this is a small minority). Appearing not to have an abundance of well-paying clients reflects badly on the firm’s image. Attorneys will actually sometimes pretend to charge more per hour than they actually do, by billing fewer hours than they actually worked at a higher rate. This gives the appearance that their services are extra valuable. Pro bono detracts from this prestige.
Still, some attorneys have said that they would be willing to engage in some pro bono if there could be some filter put in place. Our idea is to use NGOs as that filter. Ireland and Hungary, among others have created a government database that helps match lawyers willing to engage in pro bono with NGOs who require their services. This system has been promising where it has been implemented, and something similar could work in Lithuania. When a lawyer has time, he can contact an NGO and ask if any of their clients require legal services, and the NGO can send a client with a worthy case. There has been some optimism for a system such as this.
The other thing to touch on is the condition of state legal aid. It seems to be unanimously agreed upon that state legal aid is subpar at best. Legal aid attorneys are paid at a fixed rate no matter the quality of their services, and often pay little attention to the cases they are assigned. In one instance, the attorney part way through his argument had to be reminded by the judge what gender his client was. There is a lack of political will to change this system, however, because those who suffer are accused criminals, who garner very little sympathy.
All in all, this is an uphill battle that will require a culture change before it is completely fixed.