Minnesota allows in-house counsel barred outside Minnesota to serve pro-bono

Reflecting a national movement that has gained increased momentum in recent years, the Minnesota Supreme Court, on January 17, 2013, authorized in-house counsel who are barred outside of Minnesota to practice pro bono.

Under Minnesota’s newly amended Rules for Admission to the Bar, a lawyer licensed as house counsel or temporary house counsel may now provide pro bono legal representation to a pro bono client referred to the lawyer through an approved legal services provider.

By amending the rule to also include temporary house counsel, the Minnesota Supreme Court followed, in part, guidance that we offered in a comment letter on November 7, 2012.  Fourteen general counsel whose companies are headquartered in Minnesota also signed the letter.

The movement to increase the pool of lawyers authorized to provide pro bono services has gained increased momentum in response to the global economic downturn.  Studies estimate that 80% of the civil legal needs of low-income people go unmet, while the number of those in need continues to rise.  Between 2007 and 2011, the number of people qualifying for civil legal aid increased by more than 10 million, according to the Legal Services Corporation.  By tweaking its rules of practice, the Minnesota Supreme Court has tapped the in-house bar to contribute to meeting the legal needs of low-income persons in Minnesota.

In July 2012, our global partnership project with the Pro Bono Institute, Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO), successfully advocated for a resolution from the Conference of Chief Justices.  The resolution encourages all states to allow non-locally licensed in-house counsel, who are permitted to work for their employer, to practice pro bono.

Although we support the goals underlying Minnesota’s recent amendment, we continue to press other state bar regulators around the country to allow authorized in-house counsel to provide pro bono services without unnecessary restrictions.  Such restrictions have included requiring affiliation with a legal services provider or other supervision.

Practice rules permitting authorized in-house counsel to provide pro bono services should subject in-house counsel only to that state’s ethical and professional rules of conduct. By not including unnecessary restrictions and relying on the professional rules of conduct to protect clients from potential harm, states create two critical opportunities:

  • First, low-income persons could receive services outside the limited offerings of most legal aid organizations.
  • Second, organizations that serve low-income populations could get increased access to pro bono legal assistance.

Colorado and Virginia amended their practice rules in 2006 and 2011 respectively, but without the unnecessary restrictions.  Colorado allows certified in-house counsel to provide voluntary pro bono services to indigent persons and organizations serving indigent persons, subject to the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct and the Rules of Procedure Regarding Attorney Discipline and Disability Proceedings.

Virginia not only allows, but also encourages registered in-house counsel to provide voluntary pro bono publico services subject to the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct and, in part, the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Pro bono publico services are defined broadly to include poverty law, civil rights law, public interest law, and volunteer activities designed to increase the availability of pro bono legal services.

We hope that other states, in which amendments to practice rules are pending, will look to the examples of Colorado and Virginia and soon follow suit.