Pro Bono Needs in Mississippi
By Will Bardwell, Esq.

Regardless of what one thinks of the Mississippi Supreme Court’s efforts to encourage (or, depending on whom you ask, force) pro bono service, one can’t fault their motives. But the follow-through probably could use some work.

The Court made more than a couple of waves in August when it proposed a change to Rule 6.1 of the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct and openly considered becoming the only state in America to require its attorneys to perform pro bono service. The amendment would have mandated just 20 hours per year – a paltry sum, to be sure, but nonetheless 20 hours more than is required by any other jurisdiction.

As far as one can tell from squinting toward the outside at a process that takes place mostly behind closed doors, the idea went over like a ton of bricks. In the weeks of heated debate that took place over lunch tables, laptops, and cold beverages, I found exactly one attorney who thought that the Court should enact the proposal.

And I agreed with him. Although I know I find myself in the minority on the issue and suspect that the proposal is doomed, I am convinced that serious efforts are needed to address what is, by any measure, a woefully unaddressed need.

Even in what are, by my own admission, the early days of my career, seldom does a week go by in which I do not find in my P.O. box letters from prison inmates who literally beg for a few moments’ review of their cases. Many, of course, have claims that are nothing if not frivolous. But a stunning number write with legitimate constitutional issues. And despite the red flags staked into some of these cases, litigants literally are left to grovel for attention.

In any nation dedicated to the rule of law, this is completely unacceptable.

The need is not unique to the criminal sphere, of course. On any given day, chancery courtrooms across the state are crowded with unrepresented parties with simple but critically important matters – will contests, child-custody hearings, and the like – that have not received even a moment’s attention of any attorney.

And although the problem is nothing new, the economic hardships of the past few years have done nothing but fan the flames. Particularly in a state like Mississippi, where poverty is never more than a stone’s throw away, the Great Recession has made Herculean struggles of simple practices like putting dinner on the table and pills in the medicine cabinet. To many families, payment of a legal fee is, under the circumstances, nothing short of impossible.

If the situation has not reached the level of a crisis, then one has a hard time imagining what would take it to that point.

Given the backlash to the Rule 6.1 proposal, it wouldn’t be hard to envision the Supreme Court as eager to bury this issue and let the question go away for a time. But I hope that won’t happen.

After all, mandatory pro bono isn’t the only solution – even though it would be, in my continued estimation, the best way to put as big a dent in this problem in as short a time as possible. There are also steps that the Court can take to channel the pro bono energies of the Bar.

For example, although it is under no constitutional obligation to do so, the U.S. Supreme Court regularly appoints appellate counsel for litigants who are unrepresented at its bench. But the high court doesn’t do so out of the collective kindness of their nine hearts. The justices also recognize that a represented litigant is a more effective and better communicating litigant.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has no such mechanism. But it can, and it should.

In the meantime, appellate practitioners looking for pro bono work are on their own. Disorganized though the search may be, though, it’s not impossible. Start by looking at the Court of Appeals’ handdown list every Tuesday afternoon. Given the intermediate court’s heavy caseload, it usually hands down several cases every week featuring clients who either are proceeding pro se or, in the case of many appellants represented by the Office of Indigent Appeals, are about to proceed pro se. Especially in criminal matters, the clients are almost universally eager to accept representation, but don’t spend so much time making friends with your new client that you forget about the time deadlines in the Mississippi Rules of Appellate Procedure.

Talk to local trial courts, too. Circuit judges and chancellors see a lot of pro se clients, and they might be able to point someone in your direction.

And keep an eye on those letters coming from inmates. Sure, a lot of them are barking up the tree. But a stunning number have legitimate claims for post-conviction relief, and they need help. So don’t be so eager to toss those letters unopened into the wastebasket.

More than anything, just keep both eyes and ears open for opportunities, because regardless of what happens at the Supreme Court with the Rule 6.1 proposal, the need for energetic pro bono work isn’t going anywhere.