Colorado attorneys are not required to engage in pro bono work — free legal services — to maintain their licenses. In fact, that’s true of all 50 states. Rule 6.1 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct states: “Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono public legal services per year.” That holds true for the Colorado Bar Association.
The operative word here is “aspire.” Pro bono work is not mandated; it’s simply encouraged.
Perhaps that’s why Glenwood Springs-based legal aid office Alpine Legal Services (ALS) is having trouble engaging lawyers for its weekly, Wednesday night Ask a Lawyer (AAL) help line. The help line began decades ago as Thursday Night Bar. But, Jenny Wherry, director of ALS, said the name was changed because people thought lawyers were meeting at a bar.
The help line, serving Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties, exists so those without the funds to hire a lawyer can call and talk about immigration, family law, or general civil litigation issues for 15 minutes for free.
“Anyone can call,” said Claire Noone, an attorney with Noone Law Firm in Glenwood Springs and Paonia. “These conversations allow people who feel silly asking questions or don’t know if they have rights or don’t have the money [for a lawyer] to have the access, time and attention of an attorney.” Noone handles the Spanish-speaking line every Wednesday night from 5 to 7 p.m.
She told The Sopris Sun that sometimes a caller just needs 15 minutes to share their story. “That alone gives them the confidence and clarity to represent themselves and go forward,” she said.
Noone explained that misunderstandings within the civil legal system lead people to think they must hire an attorney and spend a lot of money. She said that most systems like small claims and divorce are designed so that people can represent themselves. “It’s empowering to let people know that they have the facts, walk them through the process of court, and that they are capable of representing themselves.”
Before COVID-19, AAL attorneys would meet people in-person at local libraries, rotating every week through Pitkin County, Basalt and all Garfield County libraries. “There was no calling, no phone, no hotline, no Zoom option,” explained Wherry. “It was: you show up physically, in-person, and you will talk to a lawyer.”
Noone added that in-person services meant people had to leave their homes, get babysitters and find transportation to get to the library, which wasn’t always easy. “It also required more commitment from attorneys,” she said.
With the onset of the pandemic, libraries closed down. Wherry said they had to act fast. “In April, 2020, with the help of an Americorps volunteer, we switched to the phones.” And, ALS narrowed the scope of legal issues.
All of that may sound like a recipe for success. Even Noone believes that COVID opened up access to legal aid. “Someone can call in during a break at work or when the kids are sleeping. You don’t have to have a car to get to the place.” And, lawyers can volunteer from home. “More attorneys can do this without it being a big sacrifice,” she said
But, only nine local attorneys (besides Noone) have volunteered for the English-speaking AAL line this year. One lawyer volunteered 10 times, two took calls on four nights, two on three nights, and the rest volunteered once, according to ALS records. Wherry said Noone takes calls every week, sometimes working both the Spanish- and English-speaking phones. Wherry will jump in if callers wait more than 15 minutes. A total of 382 calls have come in so far this year.
Alexi Freeman, an associate dean and professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, pointed to circumstances that could prohibit pro bono work — lack of confidence in the subject matter, no support for the work from firms and not enough time for non-billable hours. “Pro bono work can also be emotionally and mentally challenging, because you’re often supporting individuals, groups, or causes that are in real crisis,” she wrote in an email.
Jenny Wherry wonders if the help line’s days are numbered, or if ALS will have to pay attorneys to handle the phones. She also wants to beef up the recruiting process. “I could do a better job [listening] to reasons why it’s so hard to commit to pro bono service,” she said.
Meanwhile, Claire Noone won’t stop taking calls on Wednesday nights, even if she has to do it alone. “Those who rent, work multiple jobs, commute long distances or don’t have money to resolve issues have a different experience in this valley,” she explained. “Whenever we have a disparity, when one group has access to all legal minds and resources, that perpetuates inequality and division, and further drives a wedge in our society.”
Alpine Legal Services offers the Ask a Lawyer helpline in Spanish and English on Wednesday nights from 5 to 7 p.m. at 970-368-2246.