Fostering Better Bench-Bar Relations through Pro Bono Opportunities

The Bencher  |  January/February 2023

By Judge David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire

An unintended consequence of an attorney becoming a judge is the effect the change has on the judge’s relationship with his or her former colleagues. Many judges struggle with professional isolation as a result of concerns that any communications with attorneys will be perceived as a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, attorneys often avoid contacting judges outside the bounds of assigned cases—and, even then, only with participation of opposing counsel—lest they be accused of engaging in ex parte communications. Although the reluctance of judges and attorneys to reach out and interact with one another is understandable, at least to a certain degree, there are well-recognized opportunities to do exactly that.

Perhaps the method of interaction that is most obvious to those reading this article is participation in the American Inns of Court, where attorney-judge relationships are both valued and fostered. Other opportunities—most of which typically are sponsored by local bar associations—include annual bench-bar conferences, periodic “breakfasts with the bench,” and continuing legal education programs featuring both judges and attorneys as panelists. Many statewide and local bar associations have bench-bar relations committees that focus on improving the administration of justice.

Another opportunity for judges and attorneys to work together that too often is overlooked arises from pro bono work. From the judicial perspective, establishing opportunities for attorneys to engage in pro bono representation can serve as a way for judges and attorneys to interact and lessen the effects of professional isolation. Creating a program to acknowledge exceptional pro bono contributions can also make judges appear more approachable and appreciative of attorney contributions to the community. From the attorney perspective, pro bono work can be both rewarding and provide opportunities for more judicial interactions. Further, for new attorneys, additional judicial interactions can lessen the intimidation factor associated with appearing in court and can help them establish credibility with the court. Overall, pro bono efforts can foster better bench-bar relations if fully embraced by those on both sides of the bench.

How Judges Can Foster Bench-Bar Relations through Pro Bono Opportunities

Advocating for pro bono service. The need for pro bono representation in civil litigation is ubiquitous. In many areas of the country, judges are allowed—and in some cases, encouraged—to advocate for and participate in pro bono initiatives. For instance, judges can serve as members of committees that try to match low-income litigants with willing attorneys in their courthouses. They can also participate in legal education programs that espouse the benefits of equal access to justice for all. Finally, they can encourage lawyer participation in pro bono programs through public presentations and one-on-one contact.

Creating a pro bono referral system within a judge’s particular court. Every court has unique pro bono needs, and judges within each court are in the best position to determine what those needs are and what types of pro bono services would be best suited for that court. Hence, those judges should play an integral role in developing and administering a program that maximizes the chances of success. Potential pro bono attorneys also should be involved from the ground up, thereby allowing them to “buy in” to the pro bono process in an efficient and productive way.

Establishing a system to acknowledge exceptional pro bono contributions. Professionals too often overlook the potential impact of recognition programs. Judges can work with local bar associations or act independently to create and publish an “honor roll” of attorneys who have made significant contributions to pro bono service in the past year. Judges can also consider personalized recognition letters to the top performers. This type of structure may encourage attorneys to not only participate but also to present opportunities for judges to reach out and recognize attorneys for their service.

How Attorneys Can Foster Bench-Bar Relations through Pro Bono Opportunities

Participating in a local pro bono committee or board. Participation as a member of a pro bono committee or board can provide attorneys access to additional connections, including to judges, who support and advocate for pro bono work. These committees and boards can refine existing pro bono programs and also investigate and recommend new and innovative pro bono initiatives. Additionally, having a meaningful, shared goal can foster camaraderie and instill a sense of being part of something bigger than oneself.

Performing pro bono work. The benefits of actually serving as a pro bono attorney are plentiful. Representing a client in a pro bono matter can provide litigation experience for younger attorneys that they otherwise would not have while offering additional opportunities to appear in court before different judges. This additional exposure can help increase an attorney’s understanding and comfort level in the courtroom and also aid in developing a professional working relationship between the attorney and the court.

Reaching out to judges about speaking about pro bono at local bar events. Judges who are willing to advocate for pro bono service sometimes need assistance in identifying appropriate venues or others with whom to speak. In most cases, attorneys can more easily identify outlets and engage judges to speak about pro bono initiatives because those attorneys have an ideal vantage point to learn about opportunities that may be available in their local jurisdictions.

In addition to the benefits to both judges and attorneys, their mutual work assisting the disadvantaged fills a vital and necessary role in the proper administration of justice. The success of the American adversarial system often relies on having attorneys represent each of the parties. It is well-documented that represented parties fare better in court than those who are unrepresented. But arguably of more importance, represented parties are more likely to perceive that the justice system treated them fairly.

Pro bono service also increases public perceptions about legal professionals who often are the butt of jokes at cocktail parties and receive widespread criticism in pop culture. Increased public perception of the legal profession has its own indirect benefit for bench-bar relations in that it can increase overall attorney morale, cultivate positive feelings about the profession, and translate into increased mentorship and an eagerness to give back to the profession.

Ultimately, the most important step in any pro bono effort is the first one. We all need to look for and take advantage of ways that we can use pro bono service to connect the bench with the bar. Together, through pro bono opportunities and initiatives, judges and attorneys can help close the justice gap and reduce feelings of isolation while increasing their professional satisfaction.

Judge David W. Lannetti is a circuit court judge in Norfolk, Virginia (Virginia’s 4th Judicial Circuit). Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire, is a civil litigator and principal at Woods Rogers Vandeventer Black PLC, practicing out of its Norfolk office. Lannetti is a past president and Eaton is president-elect of the James Kent American Inn of Court. The views advanced in this article are those of the authors alone and should not be mistaken for the official views of the Norfolk Circuit Court or the law firm of Woods Rogers Vandeventer Black PLC.

© 2023 Judge David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.