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Pro Bono Status: Staying Active in the Profession in Retirement

By Mary Irvine

Attorney Thomas Siekman’s career has taken him many places: he practiced intellectual property law, served as general counsel of Compaq, and headed the board of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. An advocate for legal services, Tom was consistently involved in efforts to bridge the access to justice gap throughout his career by raising money with the Boston Bar Foundation and volunteering his legal services to nonprofits. After Tom decided to settle in Asheville in retirement, he inquired with a neighbor and fellow attorney about opportunities to volunteer. Tom’s neighbor sent him to Pisgah Legal Services where he has been volunteering since 2011 and currently serves as board president.

“I’ve been very fortunate in life, much of which has been due to being a lawyer. Others have not been as lucky. Through no fault of their own, many people find themselves facing homelessness, being disabled without income, growing up as a child in unsafe surroundings, or living in a situation where domestic violence is a reality. Volunteering with Pisgah Legal gives me the opportunity to use the lawyering that has been so good to me to help people receive their rightful access to the law’s protections.”

Licensed in Massachusetts, Texas, and the District of Colombia, Tom is not a member of the North Carolina State Bar. In the past, this would have prevented Tom and other attorneys who are retired in-state or licensed out-of-state from volunteering. However, Tom is able to volunteer his time to assist low-income people in the mountains of North Carolina through the State Bar’s pro bono status.

The Roots of Pro Bono Status

In 1981, Florida was the first state to establish rules allowing inactive attorneys to continue a limited practice for the purpose of providing pro bono services. According to the American Bar Association, 36 jurisdictions have adopted some form of pro bono rule—also called emeritus rules—reflecting a more recent push nationwide to explore new volunteer pools and methods of increasing access to legal aid for low-income individuals despite budget cuts.

Designed for retired legal professionals as well as out-of-state attorneys, pro bono rules seek to encourage volunteerism by lessening the licensing burdens. Rules typically exempt persons with the status from certain licensing requirements including payment of membership dues and compliance with continuing education requirements.

The value of rules granting retired and out-of-state attorneys pro bono status is multidimensional. At the heart of such rules is the desire to bridge the justice gap and build additional capacity within legal aid organizations to meet the legal needs of poor, elderly, and underserved populations. Legal needs studies consistently indicate that our current system only meets a fraction of the legal needs of poor people. According to a 2009 study of the American Bar Association, only one in five legal problems faced by low-income individuals are addressed by an attorney. The ABA also found that for every client served, another is turned away.

The need for legal services is great, and pro bono rules recognize the unique position of seasoned attorneys in retirement to help meet the need. As a group, retired attorneys may have more free time to devote to volunteering. Such attorneys also have considerable expertise as legal professionals that benefits legal services organizations and needy clients.

Judge Craig Brown retired from the bench in 2008. “Frankly, I was bored to death in retirement,” he says, having retired young due to health issues. Well-versed in the circumstances of indigent parties after hearing domestic, landlord tenant, criminal, and other cases in Durham County District Court for 12 years, he appreciates the need for representation and decided he wanted to help in retirement. “For me, pro bono is important. I don’t have to work but I want to help.”

Judge Brown had no idea that pro bono status was available in North Carolina until he sought it in October of last year. Since his petition was approved, he has been volunteering with Legal Aid of North Carolina three days per week. Judge Brown feels he can help most by training the next generation of lawyers, given his experience trying capital cases, his time on the bench, and his vast knowledge of the local community.

Gina Reyman, managing attorney of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Durham office, echoes the value of retired and out-of-state pro bono attorneys. Gina can turn to Judge Brown as an experienced attorney and judge with court issues and criminal law questions, as Legal Aid’s practice is limited to civil cases. Gina also says, “Judge Brown is able to triage people that walk in,” providing brief advice to those who otherwise might be turned away. “When other attorneys are busy, he is able to really take time with people.”

North Carolina’s Pro Bono Status Rule

In March 2008 the North Carolina Supreme Court approved a proposed rule amendment of the State Bar allowing inactive North Carolina attorneys and out-of-state attorneys to seek “emeritus pro bono status.” The amendment created a new membership class allowing both inactive in-state attorneys and out-of-state attorneys to provide pro bono legal aid through an established legal services program under the supervision of a practicing attorney.

Jeremy Browner was the first attorney to obtain pro bono status in North Carolina. Jeremy moved to the Tar Heel state from New York around the time the rule was approved. While waiting to obtain licensure by comity, Jeremy was reading through the rules pertaining to the State Bar and found out about the opportunity to volunteer as an attorney licensed out of state. “Helping those who cannot afford legal assistance is a professional duty that all attorneys should undertake. The fact that I was waiting for my application to the State Bar to process did not mean that those who needed pro bono legal assistance should wait.” With pro bono status, he volunteered with Legal Aid of North Carolina, assisting in foreclosure, bankruptcy, and estate cases.

For Jeremy, volunteering allowed him to help people while learning about his new community. While volunteering, Jeremy got to know the North Carolina court system after practicing in Ohio and New York, noting differences in the judicial management of cases and the role of clerks.

Now Jeremy is a solo practitioner in Chapel Hill with a general practice that also focuses on bankruptcy, aviation, crowdfunding, and other issues. Gina Reyman, who also supervised Jeremy Browner, reiterates that “even if emeritus and out-of-state attorneys only do temporary work before obtaining full licensure, their experience contributes to their long-term knowledge of what legal aid does,” and that is critical given the great need for pro bono attorneys.

In Jeremy’s case, he continues to support legal services by participating in NC LEAP and Lawyer on the Line programs of the North Carolina Bar Association and Legal Aid of North Carolina. He also started Monday Night Law, a program of the Orange County Bar Association that offers free 30-minute consultations to individuals in the community one evening per month.

Benefits of Pro Bono Status for Attorneys

In North Carolina, emeritus and out-of-state pro bono attorneys are not required to pay membership dues or maintain continuing legal education hours, though attorneys may choose to attend CLE courses if they are interested in learning about a topic or need training in a particular area in order to be a productive volunteer.

Many legal aid organizations offer periodic free or low-cost trainings for volunteers on particular substantive areas of law. Trainings orient attorneys who have spent their careers practicing in an unrelated setting to issues of poverty law that low-income clients frequently experience. Though he doesn’t need the credits, Tom Siekman has taken multiple CLEs, including those offered by Pisgah Legal Services, to get further training on issues like benefits, domestic violence, and housing law. Judge Brown has also taken advantage of CLE opportunities. He recently attended a CLE offered by the North Carolina Bar Association and Legal Aid of North Carolina on removing barriers to employment through expungements and certificates of relief.

While the pro bono status rule does not require malpractice insurance be secured in order to volunteer, most legal services organizations carry policies that cover volunteer attorneys. Volunteers who want to ensure an organization carries malpractice that will cover their work should ask the supervising attorney for more information.

For out-of-state attorneys in good standing in licensed jurisdictions, the pro bono status rules remove the barrier of having to sit for the North Carolina bar exam or pursue comity if desiring to provide volunteer legal services. For volunteers like Jeremy who are new to the state and awaiting licensure, pro bono status allows attorneys to stay engaged in practice and meet the local legal community.

Leaving the practice of law after years can prove challenging for attorneys who have been consumed by full caseloads and countless professional responsibilities. Pro bono offers an outlet for retired and out-of-state attorneys to continue to use their unique skills, mentor less experienced attorneys, and help others in need of counsel. “Retired lawyers still want to dabble,” says Judge Brown, which is why some opt to keep their license active even after they have practically retired. “When you do something for a long time, it’s hard to park it.” Pro bono status benefits attorneys who wish to continue their profession on a pro bono basis while furthering the goal of making our system of justice available to all. 

Mary Irvine is IOLTA’s access to justice coordinator.

For more information about the process of petitioning for emeritus pro bono status or pro bono opportunities in your area, contact Mary Irvine at or 919-706-4435.