During the long winter, 74-year-old Pagosa Springs resident Kent Schafer began thinking about his own mortality.
He decided it was time to draw up a will that would guide what happens to his estate upon death. But living on Social Security, Schafer couldn’t afford an attorney, and he didn’t want to risk doing it himself.
“It was going to cost an awful lot to have an attorney take care of it,” Schafer said.
Through Colorado Legal Services, which helps low-income residents, Schafer was paired with Durango lawyer Lindsey Nicholson, who agreed to prepare Schafer’s will free – or pro bono.
“There are good attorneys, and there are ones who are willing to give back to their community,” Schafer said. “I don’t know how to express my gratitude, but maybe there’s a way I can help someone else in some other way.”
Colorado lawyers are encouraged to provide at least 50 hours of free legal services per year to indigent people in civil matters.
Participants who reach the goal are recognized annually by the Colorado Supreme Court, as was the case in May when Justice Gregory J. Hobbs visited Durango to honor legal professionals who donate their services.
“It is an expectation that if you hold a law license, you’re going to give back to the community,” Hobbs said during a phone interview.
Practicing law is “not only a business,” he said. “It’s a public profession and responsibility.”
Providing free services is not a requirement, but it is recommended in the Colorado Rule of Professional Conduct. The lawyer’s oath of admission also implies a duty to serve the poor: “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed,” the oath reads.
Pro bono work was paramount to both Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, Hobbs said.
“It should be done voluntarily, the way Jefferson and Lincoln and other lawyers have historically done it,” he said.
In criminal cases, the government provides indigent defendants with free public defenders. But in civil cases, there is no guarantee to free representation for people who can’t afford it.
Civil cases can include divorces, child-custody cases, tenant-landlord conflicts and employment disputes.
Most local attorneys charge about $200 per hour to resolve such matters. That can be cost prohibitive for low-income residents, especially a spouse going through a divorce who has no personal income, said Lynne Sholler, chairwoman of the local Access to Justice program, which works to enhance the quality of justice in civil legal matters.
The down economy has increased the volume of litigants who can’t afford an attorney, Sholler said. It also has increased the number of divorces and evictions, she said.
“At $200 an hour, not many of us can afford to hire a lawyer,” she said. “Attorneys joke that we can’t afford ourselves.”
Lawyers who perform pro bono services said it gives them a sense of satisfaction.
“It’s always rewarding to help someone in need, especially when you know they could not manage the case by themselves,” Sholler said.
Durango lawyer Bobby Duthie, who has 30 years of experience, said he routinely provides more than 50 hours of pro bono services per year.
“It is part of my obligation to my community,” he said.
People who need a lawyer and can’t afford one should start by calling Colorado Legal Services in Durango.
But any attorney might be willing to offer pro bono help if he or she comes to empathize with a potential client’s predicament.
Duthie said a call seeking such an arrangement might start something like: “I have a problem. I may not be able to afford your services, but can I ask you a question?”
It comes down to making a connection.
“Once they form a relationship with the lawyer, the lawyer wants to help,” he said.
More help needed
Statewide, attorneys provide thousands of hours of pro bono legal services each year, but many don’t track the time.
“Most of us don’t add it up, to be honest,” Sholler said. “We just do it.”
Marla Underell, who has practiced law for 11 years in Durango and was recognized for completing more than 50 hours of pro bono work, said many local attorneys provide free services without any recognition. But more needs to be done, she said.
“I’ll be honest: I think our legal community can do a lot more,” she said. “There are a lot more attorneys that could participate in the pro bono program.”
Underell does most of her free work in domestic-relation cases, including divorce and child-custody disputes. The cases come to her via Colorado Legal Services.
“I just feel very strongly that all attorneys owe a duty to our community to assist those who cannot afford legal services,” she said.
Volunteering services to the indigent is personally gratifying, she said.
“Some of the best letters and thank you letters I have ever received have come from my pro bono clients,” she said. “They’re just extremely grateful for my services.”
Lawyers don’t have to oversee an entire case; they can offer “unbundled services,” such as filing certain pleadings or giving legal advice piecemeal.
Another form of free help lawyers provide is clinics about bankruptcy, foreclosure, divorce, landlord-tenant rights, and wills and estates.
In all, about 40 local attorneys were recognized last month for volunteering their time to mediate small-claim cases in La Plata County, said Kyla Norcross, a paralegal with Colorado Legal Services in Durango and the pro bono coordinator for Southwest Bar Volunteer Legal Aid.
“Attorneys get a bad rap,” Norcross said. “What doesn’t get said is that there are many, many attorneys who do really care about the community and do this pro bono work. Attorneys do have a big heart. It’s just not that well known.”