Michael Terasaki started his new role in what he calls “Zoom land.”
“I don’t know anything outside of the COVID paradigm, which is a really interesting place to start …,” said Terasaki, who a little over a year ago took on the role of manager of the Washington Pro Bono Council, a consortium of 16 volunteer lawyer programs in the state. “I don’t know what normal looks like.”
For Terasaki and others who coordinate pro bono and low bono legal services in Washington, the new normal amid the undulating cycles of pandemic chaos has been a stew of new opportunities and new limitations, rising needs for legal aid and limited resources to meet it. It’s not necessarily the case that volunteerism has fallen dramatically—its dipped slightly, he said—but the pandemic clobbered the available legal aid with a sudden and dramatic increase in clients.
“I think a lot of volunteers are just exhausted at this point,” Terasaki said. “A lot of them were people who were volunteering before—they didn’t answer some new call. They’re just overtaxed. They would like to keep doing it, but the need hasn’t really gone down as we hoped it would.”
However, Washington ranks high in the U.S. for the amount of pro bono work its legal community provides. And the state has a solid reputation for its legal aid system, and the programs and training available to lawyers willing to donate their time and expertise.
“In Washington state, pro bono really covers a lot; I think a lot more than other states when it comes to legal aid work,” Terasaki said.
In fact, according to one of the most recent studies by the American Bar Association (ABA), Washington lawyers gave more of their time, on average, than lawyers in any other state surveyed. As reported in the recently published ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2021, legal practitioners in Washington contributed:
An average of 57 hours of pro bono service per lawyer for all lawyers—the highest among all states surveyed. Two-thirds of all lawyers in Washington (68 percent) reported doing at least some pro bono work. Among those, the average amount of pro bono work performed was 77 hours. Washington also had the lowest percentage of lawyers who have never performed pro bono work—10 percent.
The report cites a 2016 study by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and the Center for Pro Bono, in which 24 states were surveyed. That study further states that “Washington state was also one of the highest in terms of the percent of their attorney population that performed 80 or more hours of pro bono in 2016, with 18.6 percent of the attorneys reporting this.”
More recently, according to WSBA’s own statistics, last year 2,453 WSBA members contributed a total of 178,220 hours (112,042 direct and 66,178 indirect), or about 73 hours per member. Of those, more than one-third (891 members) logged at least 50 hours; 18 percent (441 members) logged at least 80 hours.
Comparatively on the national scale, the average lawyer provided about 37 hours of pro bono services in 2018, according to the ABA, and only approximately 20 percent of all lawyers met the ABA goal of providing 50 hours or more, which was down from 36 percent reported in the last survey conducted in 2013.
In 2019, according to Terasaki, Washington volunteer lawyer programs alone contributed more than 35,000 hours of legal aid and served 20,400 clients. That included 16,800 legal consultations and brief services and 3,580 full representations to clients.
Although such numbers are strong, more help is always needed and always welcome from willing volunteers. Among folks who coordinate legal aid clinics and other pro bono services, their message to other legal professionals is consistent no matter who you’re asking: anyone can help and any amount of help makes a difference.
“I think every lawyer really wants justice; you want to see the right outcomes for people and I think we forget how intimidating the courthouse can be and how intimidating legal matters can be because we live them every day,” said Yakima County Volunteer Attorney Services Executive Director Quinn Dalan. “And lawyers make a difference—they can if they’re willing to get involved.”