Unfortunately, rain showers have dampened our chances of seeing federal judges cracking off rounds at the shooting range here at the pastoral Nemacolin Woodland Resort. Not to worry: We actually learned a few things by staying indoors. One of the highlights of today's business meeting was a clear-eyed appraisal of the pro bono scene in Washington.
First, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr was awarded the Daniel M. Gribbon Pro Bono Advocacy Award for its representation of Timothy Naegele, a Washington bankruptcy lawyer and former counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Naegele was indicted in April 2005 on 11 counts of bankruptcy fraud and making false statements. Wilmer Hale Partner John Rogovin, associates Michael Snyder and Rob Mays, and Assistant Federal Public Defender Jonathan Jeffress got five of the counts tossed out before trial. The jury acquitted Naegele of four counts and hung on the remaining two, which were eventually dismissed by U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman for insufficient evidence.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia began giving out the award in 2006. It is endowed by Gribbon's family and goes to the firm that demonstrates distinguished advocacy in a pro bono matter. Gribbon, a former president of the Metropolitan Club and the Historical Society of the D.C. Circuit, handled antitrust, tax, commercial and litigation matters at Covington & Burling for 50 years. He died in 2005 at the age of 88. His daughter, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, was on hand for the award presentation.
While the District has the highest number of lawyers per capita (roughly 272 lawyers for every 10,000 residents), the pro bono numbers have been middling. Five years ago, just seven firms surveyed by the D.C. Circuit's Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services had 40 percent of their attorneys working 50 or more pro bono hours a year. Today, Co-chairs Kathleen Wach and Susan Hoffman said that 21 firms met that 40 percent goal in the last year.
But Wach and Hoffman said the demand for free legal services is much higher today, citing statistics from the committee's 2008 report. The poverty level in the District is at a 10-year high, with one in five residents living below the poverty line; nearly one in three working families in the District is poor. The report cites a forthcoming D.C. Access to Justice Commission study of legal needs in the District, which notes that “the unmet need for legal assistance . . .is significant. Our survey confirmed that there is no area in which all of the need is being met." The AJC study is due to be released later this summer.
The committee's report is based on surveys sent to managing partners at 123 area firms. As of April, about half of the firms—all comprising at least 26 attorneys—had responded. Still, the surveys give reason for cautious optimism. More than half of the responding firms had pro bono goals built into their firm structure and nearly all had written policies covering pro bono legal work. That shows that pro bono is rooting itself deeper in firm culture, the report suggests.
Click here for the full report. And check back with us later for more coverage of the Judicial Conference.