Back to January 2012 home page Back to Legal Elite home

2012 Legal Elite

Give as good as you get

Call it payback: Here’s what some of the state’s best lawyers are doing to make their communities a better place to live.

In one way, the lawyer’s lot is a hard one. It’s among the least loved of professions by those not in dire need of one. Maybe that’s why many of its members want so badly to do some good outside the confines of the law office and courtroom. To see how some of the state’s top legal talent does that, we asked the top vote-getters in this year’s Business North Carolina Legal Elite to briefly describe how they give back to their communities. The photographs that appear on this site provide a glimpse.


Doing good is more than just a personal preference. “We certainly promote volunteer work and encourage it,” says Martin Brinkley, president of the North Carolina Bar Association. Founded in 1899, the affiliate of the governing N.C. State Bar counts more than 17,000 of the approximately 23,000 licensed lawyers in North Carolina as members — the largest voluntary legal association in the country. He’s quick to point out that while volunteerism is encouraged, it’s equally important for lawyers to use their state-given right to help those who can’t afford their services — otherwise known as pro bono work.


“Lawyers and other members of learned professions are given a special monopoly on a mode of activity that enables them to make money,” says Brinkley, a partner with Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan LLP in Raleigh. “We make our money and livelihood in a way other members of the public can’t, so that gives us a special responsibility to provide services to those who cannot afford to pay us.” But not all lawyers agree on pro bono’s definition, he adds.


That’s why the State Bar adopted a rule in 2010 that defines it as a responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay, or, in other words, the indigent. “The rules are adopted by lawyers to govern the conduct of lawyers,” says Alice Mine, assistant executive director of the State Bar. It suggests — but does not require — they render at least 50 hours of pro bono legal service a year. That could also mean counseling a church or nonprofit free of charge.


“Lawyers will say, ‘I volunteer for a clothing drive, so I’m fulfilling my professional obligation to provide pro bono services,’” Mine says. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s important to define it so that we’re clear on what it is not.” That’s particularly so in a state where a third of the population lives below the federal poverty line. “Lawyers will jokingly say, ‘I do pro bono all the time because I have clients who don’t pay me.’”
“Nobody is trying to discourage any lawyer from doing other public work,” Brinkley says. “Lawyers are still serving on museum boards and church boards as much as we ever have. We do think lawyers have a special responsibility to the poor.”


Examples of pro bono work can be found as far back as early Roman tribunals, according to legal scholar Deborah L. Rhode’s Pro Bono in Principle and in Practice. But a closer historical parallel to contemporary pro bono counsel comes from Great Britain, where clerical advocates were appointed to represent people who could not afford to pay as early as the 9th century.


But giving back is much broader than just representing the poor, as this year’s Legal Elite package illustrates. There’s even historical precedence. “More than half of the framers of the Constitution were lawyers,” Brinkley says. “They served in regulatory branches in very high percentages, higher than any other profession. We’ve always done lots of public service.”


— Ana McKenzie

 

Photography by Steve Exum