The news that the Varnum law firm has pledged to provide $1M in free legal services to Michigan start-ups sends a great message about the crucial role lawyers play in business development and about lawyers’ civic spirit and dedication to the future of Michigan. Bravo. But it is also important to note that while the provision of free legal services to start-ups may be many good things --a boon to the state’s economic development, a boost to entrepreneurs, helpful community service, wonderful marketing, and brilliant client development -- it isn't, strictly speaking, what the Governor called it -- "pro bono." Although the pro bono obligation is expressed in somewhat different ways in different jurisdictions, all U.S. lawyers are bound by the codes of the professional conduct in which they are licensed to provide free legal assistance to low-income persons. The State Bar of Michigan’s Voluntary Pro Bono Standard reflects this conventional understanding of “pro bono” by calling on every lawyer annually to give free legal services to the poor or financial contributions for legal aid, including through the Access to Justice Fund.
Varnum is a leader under this traditional understanding of “pro bono;” the firm is listed on the State Bar’s Circle of Excellence recognizing law firms that fully meet the Standard by assisting the poor. We certainly don’t expect the MiSpringboard program to change that commitment, and we applaud the recognition that Varnum and other lawyers rightly receive for community service in addition to fulfilling their traditional “pro bono” obligations. Simply put, the more we spread the truth that “A Lawyer Helps,” the better off we all are, lawyers and the public alike. But it is worth remembering that calling services that are not focused on the indigent “pro bono” does not make them “pro bono” under the century-long understanding of that term in our profession. Like Varnum, firms can both fulfill their traditional pro bono obligations to the poor and provide other services in their communities But if lawyers who think free legal service for business development is “pro bono” spend their limited pro bono human capital on free legal services to for-profit start-ups whose success could pay big dividends for their firm, rather than on free legal services to the poor, the poor are likely to come out on the short end.