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The Third Branch

Pro Bono Honor Society recognizes attorneys

By Reserve Judge Margaret J. Vergeront & Jeff Brown, Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission

The Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission and the State Bar of Wisconsin pro bono program recently established the Wisconsin Pro Bono Honor Society to recognize Wisconsin attorneys who volunteer their time to provide at least 50 hours of legal services a year to benefit low income individuals.  The reporting process for calendar year 2013 is now closed, and we're pleased to announce that 121 attorneys have become members based on their pro bono contributions for the calendar year 2013. You can view a list of the 2013 members online at www.wisatj.org/projects/probonosociety.

We identified the individuals who met the requisite criteria based on their voluntary reporting in response to an email invitation that was sent in April to every Wisconsin attorney explaining how to join the Pro Bono Honor Society. In future years, the invitation will be sent out each February to potential new members who may qualify based on their service in the preceding calendar year.

In establishing the Wisconsin Pro Bono Honor Society, the Commission and the State Bar hope to bring greater attention to the significant role that attorneys play through their volunteer services to low income persons. We also hope that the number of attorneys meeting the standard for inclusion in the society will increase each year.   We will be publicizing the names of the honorees online and in State Bar publications. In addition, local recognition events will be arranged with bar associations and the judiciary. 

One example of a local event that has provided an opportunity to recognize honor society members is the annual Dane County Pro Bono breakfast, held on May 1. The Honorable Richard Niess presented certificates of membership to the 26 new Dane County honorees, emphasizing in his comments the importance of their contribution to the court system.

The participation of judges is a key component of expanding membership in the Pro Bono Honor Society.   We know this from the experience in other states that have succeeded in making pro bono honor societies a vital part of creating a thriving pro bono culture. Recognition and encouragement from the judges that attorneys appear before is an effective means of influencing attorneys' behavior. The Commission will be reaching out to judges around the state to gather ideas on how best to recognize the attorneys in their areas who provide pro bono services to low income individuals and how best to encourage others to do so. Judges who are interested in participating in this effort should contact Margaret Vergeront.

The Access to Justice Commission, created by order of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2009, is charged with expanding access to the civil justice system for unrepresented low-income Wisconsin residents. Our work spans a range of efforts to fulfill this mission, including increasing public and private funding, public outreach, encouraging collaborations in the delivery system and advocating for rule changes that will enhance access to justice.  Supporting the expansion of pro bono legal services to low income residents is an important part of the Commission's vision of a statewide civil legal services delivery system that is comprehensive, integrated, effective, and fair.

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