Legal assistance foundation: Pro bono work sees increase

Photo by Getty Images.

A nonprofit legal assistance group said Ohio’s attorneys have contributed to a significant increase in free legal services in the last year.

The Ohio Access to Justice Foundation reported a 70% increase in pro bono donations since 2018, and more than $26 million worth of pro bono work done since last year.

The pro bono work — free legal services done for low-income clients — amounted to about 105,000 hours conducted by more than 3,700 attorneys, according to the foundation. The rise comes even as the reporting period for the year was cut short due to COVID-19, the foundation stated in its report.

“During these challenging times, it is more critical than ever that attorneys volunteer to help those facing unemployment issues, evictions, foreclosures, and other pandemic enhanced legal problems,” said Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor in a release.

The foundation’s board is made up of members of the Ohio Supreme Court; governmental representatives from the Ohio Senate, governor’s office and attorney general’s office; state law schools and law firms; and the state bar association, along with members of courts and religious organizations.

Funding comes through civil filing fee surcharges and fundraising efforts.

Statewide, non-profit and corporate clients made up 15% of pro bono legal services, the largest category of work done. Housing cases and help with wills and probate followed that, making up 14% each of the donated legal work. Both of the top categories were up from 2018 numbers, when corporate/non-profit work and housing each made up 13% of the workload.

Employment cases were 10% in 2019, just ahead of bankruptcy/consumer assistance, tax law and family law.

Cuyahoga County reported the highest county amount of pro bono hours, with 45,003 among 1,384 attorneys. At a stated rate of $250 per hour, those free legal services would have totaled more than $11 million. 

Residents who fall below 125% of the poverty line make up 23% of the county’s population. Most of the county’s pro bono work (15%) fell under the category of corporate/non-profit work, with housing cases making up 14%, wills and probate taking 12% and services related to employment bringing in 11% of pro bono work. 

Franklin County made up the second most pro bono cases with more than 34,000 hours and about $8.5 million in volunteer attorney time. Twenty percent of the county falls below 125% of the poverty line.

Hamilton County took up 31,000 hours, or $7.8 million in pro bono services over the last year. The population of the county that falls below the poverty level is also 20%.

One of the lowest amounts of pro bono work came from Paulding County, where attorneys spent 5,267 hours, approximately $1.3 million. The largest category in that county was employment-related, making up 24% of the workload in a county with 14% of residents below the poverty level.