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Pro Bono Practice

Pro Bono Practice

Pro bono is a term that refers to legal work undertaken voluntarily by a lawyer without the expectation of payment. Each Iowa lawyer is encouraged to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year. See Iowa Ct. Rule 32:6.1. This is not a requirement and often Iowa lawyers provide far more than the recommended 50 hours. Each year lawyers have the opportunity to report on their annual report the number of hours of pro bono legal services they provide. The hours can be devoted to a charitable organization or directly to persons of limited means.

Some attorneys, such as those serving as government attorneys or judges, are statutorily prohibited from engaging in the private practice of law. Those attorneys can still volunteer their time by serving on bar association committees, boards of pro bono or legal services programs, taking part in Law Day activities, acting as a continuing education instructor, acting as mediator or arbitrator, and working in other ways to improve the legal system. Regardless of the type of legal practice an Iowa attorney has, there are many ways to be of service to the public.

Pro Bono Practice by Registered House Counsel

Pro bono is so important to the legal profession and the public, the Iowa Supreme Court has expanded the type of attorneys that can provide such services. Attorneys who are not admitted to practice law in Iowa but who are admitted to practice law in another jurisdiction can register as "house counsel" in Iowa if they have both a continuous presence in Iowa and are employed as a lawyer by an entity whose business is something other than the practice of law. Iowa Ct. R. 31.16(1). Once registered as house counsel the non-Iowa attorney is allowed to perform legal services solely for the employing entity and its employees, officers and directors (so long as the legal services are directly relate to the work of the entity). Iowa Ct. R. 31.16(3)(a)(1). Such conduct is a recognized exception to Iowa’s Rules of Professional Conduct. See Iowa Ct. R. 32:5.5(d).

Generally speaking, house counsel cannot provide legal services to third-parties. Iowa Ct. R. 31.16(3)(a)(2)(2). There is, however, one exception to this rule that is specific to pro bono legal services:

Notwithstanding the provisions of rule 31.16(3)(a), a lawyer registered under this [house counsel] rule is authorized to provide pro bono legal services through an established not-for-profit bar association, pro bono program or legal services program, or through such organization(s) specifically authorized in this state. This provision does not apply to foreign lawyers registered under this rule. Iowa Ct. R. 31.16(3)(b).

Rule 31.16 does not contain any explanatory commentary to provide further guidance as to the specifics of the house counsel pro bono practice. However, an analogous rule, rule 31.17, does provide some assistance. Rule 31.17 allows for the provision of legal services following a determination by the Iowa Supreme Court that there has been a natural or other major disaster that has affected the justice system. Once the court has declared such an emergency has occurred, non-Iowa lawyers who are in good standing in their respective jurisdictions may provide legal services in Iowa on a temporary basis. The language in both rules is almost identical:

Such legal services must be provided on a pro bono basis without compensation, expectation of compensation or other direct or indirect pecuniary gain to the lawyer. Such legal services shall be assigned and supervised through an established not-for-profit bar association, pro bono program or legal services program or through such organization(s) specifically designated by this court. Iowa Ct. R. 31.17(2).

Comment [3] to rule 31.17(2) provides additional guidance by way of the following explanation:

Lawyers permitted to provide legal services pursuant to this rule must do so without fee or other compensation, or expectation thereof. Their service must be provided through an established not-for-profit organization that is authorized to provide legal services either in its own name or that provides representation of clients through employed or cooperating lawyers. Alternatively, this court [the Iowa Supreme Court] may instead designate other specific organization(s) through which these legal services may berendered.

Both rules clearly contemplate that the attorney providing the pro bono legal service is doing so through or on behalf of a legal services entity rather than merely as an individual attorney offering free legal services directly to the public. There does not appear, however, to be a requirement that these legal services entities be officially approved by the court as is the case for emeritus attorneys under rule 31.19 or law student practice under rule 31.15. Both of those rules limit the pro bono practice to specific approved legal aid organizations. See Iowa Ct. Rs. 31.19(2)(c) and 31.15(17) respectively.

The house counsel pro bono rule (and the emergency services pro bono rule) does not have such a limitation. So long as the organization is authorized to provide legal services in its own name or provide representation to its clients through employed or cooperating lawyers, the house counsel attorney may assist that entity.

Practically speaking, a current list of such legal services providers may be found by the court’s awarding of IOLTA funding grants. Each year funds are distributed through a grant application process, with the grantees being reviewed and evaluated by both the Lawyers Trust Account Commission and ultimately the Iowa Supreme Court. House counsel seeking opportunities to provide pro bono legal assistance are encouraged to contact one of the IOLTA funded entities that provides direct legal assistance to low-income persons in Iowa.

Attorneys registered as house counsel, however, are limited in what pro bono legal services they can provide. Specifically, house counsel registration does not authorize an attorney to make appearances before a court or administrative agency. Iowa Ct. R. 31.16(3)(a)(2)(1). To appear in court on a pro bono matter, house counsel must first comply with the requirements for pro hac vice admission under rule 31.14. Such pro hac vice admission is necessary even for pro bono work. Pro bono work under the emergency services provision has a similar restriction. Comment [6] to rule 31.17 ("Rules 31.17(2) and (3) do not authorize lawyers toappear in the courts of this state.")

All attorneys registered as house counsel in Iowa are encouraged to participate in pro bono activities. Inquiries as to what is or is not an appropriate pro bono activity can be directed to the Office of Professional Regulation at 515-348-4670.

Emeritus Attorney

Finally, attorneys at the end of their professional legal career are also encouraged to provide pro bono legal services. This is most often done by utilization of the "emeritus attorney" rule found in rule 31.19. An emeritus attorney is any attorney who was once admitted to practice law in Iowa or any other state and is certified to provide pro bono legal services under a sponsoring approved legal aid organization. There are certain other requirements (such as no prior revocation and an agreement to abide by the Iowa disciplinary rules), but this rule allows lawyers to continue to use their legal skills and experience in helping the public--whether their prior practice was originally here in Iowa or elsewhere. Emeritus attorneys are entitled to appear in court proceedings, prepare pleadings and other legal documents, and provide legal advice to clients of the approved legal aid organization.

Inactive, retired, or out-of-state attorneys may contact the Office of Professional Regulation at 515-348-4670 for more information on how to become an emeritus attorney.

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