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Allegheny County lawyers: Pro bono work key part of the job

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Jonathan McAnney gets paid to defend businesses when they're sued in civil court, but he gets just as much out of working for free.

“That pro bono client is no different than a paying client,” said McAnney, 50, of Gibsonia, a lawyer at Tucker Arensberg, Downtown. “I don't prioritize my work based upon whether I'm getting paid for it or not.”

Thousands of lawyers every year donate their time and legal services to clients who can't afford to pay for it on their own, and lawyers and nonprofits recognize pro bono efforts each October. The federal Legal Services Corp. estimates more than 2 million clients nationwide request free legal assistance each year.

“There are thousands and thousands and thousands of people who vitally need legal services but can't afford a lawyer,” said state Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille. “We have legal services agencies that help provide legal services but they're underfunded, so we have to do what we can do to make sure people who need a lawyer have the services of a lawyer.”

Attorneys who take up pro bono cases generally deal with issues facing the poor, such as landlord/tenant disputes, credit card debts and bankruptcies. Performing pro bono work is not mandatory in Pennsylvania, but it is listed in the American Bar Association's model rules of professional conduct.

“We feel that lawyers have an ethical duty to provide free legal service for those who can't afford it,” said Barbara Griffin, the pro bono coordinator for the Allegheny County Bar Foundation. “Lawyers have a monopoly on professional law, and with that monopoly comes a responsibility.”

The Allegheny County Bar Foundation had more than 900 attorneys, law students and paralegals perform thousands of hours of pro bono work in 2011, Griffin said. Diane Krivoniak, a spokeswoman for the Westmoreland Bar Association, said member attorneys provide free work on 400 to 500 cases a year.

Free training sessions are available for attorneys who specialize in one aspect of the law but want to donate their time in a different area.

Attorneys take on pro bono work for a variety of reasons, said Esther Lardent, president and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute in Washington. For many, it can help them network and advance their careers. For others, such as Melaine Rothey, a family lawyer at Jones Gregg Creehan & Gerace, Downtown, volunteering was a part of her childhood.

“I was raised in a home where my parents did a lot of volunteer work, and I brought that into my profession,” she said. “I often feel like I've actually helped somebody, and I think the pro bono clients ­— because they have no idea what they're doing and somebody's willing to do something for them just because it's the right thing to do — really appreciate the help.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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