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President's Message: Getting started with pro bono can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be

By Stuart Segrest

Last issue I discussed some of the themes I hope to work on during this year. These included supporting the rule of law, addressing the ramifications of artificial intelligence on our practice, and increasing access to justice for all Montanans. The first two issues are vast and it is hard to know where to begin on the individual level. While access to justice can also appear intransigent, there is a simple, and direct, means for an individual lawyer to make a difference: pro bono service.

Lawyers, of course, have a professional responsibility to provide at least 50 hours of services per year for the public good without fee. See M. R. Prof. Cond. 6.1. However, finding the time and inclination to meet this obligation — among billable hours, familial obligations, hobbies, etc. — is sometimes easier said than done. I thought I’d share my experience with pro bono service in the hope it provides some ideas for getting started (or continuing).

My practice began at the Montana Attorney General’s Office. There I was aware of my obligation to perform pro bono service, but wasn’t quite clear how I was to do so. The two most obvious barriers were (1) I had no experience practicing family law, the most common (but not only) area of need for pro bono services, and (2) I had to be careful not to take cases involving criminal matters (allegations of domestic violence for example) to avoid conflict with the work of the AG’s Office. What ended up working best for me was limited-scope representation. See M. R. Prof. Cond. 1.2(c) (providing for limited-scope representation with client consent). 

Usually, this consisted of either reviewing form documents filled out by the client (e.g. a parenting plan), or volunteering for the First Judicial District pro bono clinic, held at the Montana Legal Service Association (MLSA) Offices. For document review, a MLSA staffer would email me documents and basic information about the case. Once I had reviewed and suggested edits, my representation ended. At the clinic I would assist two clients, each for about 45 minutes. My representation usually consisted of some combination of reviewing documents and providing advice concerning the client’s particular legal needs and circumstances. Limited-scope representation is a great entry into fulfilling pro bono work. Most clients I assisted were both gracious and grateful, despite the limited nature of my representation. 

Once you have your feet under you, I suggest taking on full-scope representation. Some cases just call for full representation, such as where the adverse is represented by a lawyer. Taking on a full case, especially for new attorneys, also provides great experience that can be hard to come by as an associate. As an added bonus, every district court judge I have spoken with looks very fondly on lawyers who represent low-income clients pro bono; the bench notices. Luckily, you are not alone in these endeavors. MLSA is a great resource and can get you set up with the level of representation you feel comfortable with, including phone or remote advice, and can also pair you with a mentor for full-scope cases. 

Thanks in advance for your pro bono efforts; they move the needle on providing access to justice. I look forward to hearing your pro bono stories and ideas for how we can expand access to justice in Montana. 

Stuart Segrest is a senior attorney at Christensen & Prezeau, PLLP where he handles a wide range of litigation and appellate matters. Before joining the firm, he worked for the Montana Attorney General’s Office, where his career spanned the terms of four different Attorneys General. He served as Chief of the Civil Services Bureau, which represents the State of Montana in complex constitutional litigation and other cases of statewide importance in both state and federal court. He is currently serving as the President of the State Bar of Montana.