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Ethics Opinion

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May 3, 1991


    A lawyer may serve as a volunteer lawyer, delivering legal services to participants at no charge, in a clinic sponsored by a not-for-profit community social service organization which asks participants for voluntary donations to support the organization's programs, as long as the donations are not tied to the services offered by the lawyer and are not used to determine the eligibility of participants to receive the legal services.

    References: MRPC 5.4(a), 6.1, 7.2(c).


A nonprofit community social service organization provides crisis counselling and family planning, as well as a free legal clinic where members of the public can come and speak with a lawyer. The organization is planning a special clinic where volunteer lawyers would be available to prepare Michigan form wills and living wills for the public; if a person's problem was beyond the scope of the special clinic, it would be explained to that person that it would be appropriate for them to retain the services of another lawyer.

During the special clinic, the organization proposes to solicit voluntary contributions from participants to support its activities; $35 to $50 would be suggested as an appropriate amount of contribution. No contribution is required for the legal service to be provided. The volunteer lawyers will not share in the contributions received by the organization. The organization will have no input in the lawyers' decision-making process. The lawyers will exercise professional judgment in dealing with each client.

A lawyer asks whether it is ethical to participate as a volunteer lawyer in the clinic.

MRPC 5.4 addresses the issue of professional independence of a lawyer. The not-for-profit community organization is to have no ability to direct or regulate the volunteering lawyers' professional judgment, or interfere in the relationship between the volunteering lawyer and the lawyer's client. The concerns of MRPC 5.4(c) and 5.4(d)(3) are therefore not raised.

The facts state that the lawyers donate their services. The only monetary aspect of the clinic is the solicitation by the organization for a voluntary contribution to support its activities. The voluntary contribution is not tied to the lawyers' services, the lawyers are not aware of who has contributed and who has not, and participants receive the lawyers' services regardless of whether they have contributed. The volunteer lawyer in this case gives nothing to the organization for the opportunity to counsel the participants, and therefore does not violate MRPC 7.2(c). CI-246, CI-705; see also, ABA i85-1510.

Furthermore, pursuant to the general principle established in MRPC 6.1 regarding pro bono publico service, lawyers are encouraged to provide public interest legal services. MRPC 6.1 specifically states that the lawyer may:

    "discharge this responsibility by providing professional services at no fee or at a reduced fee to persons of limited means, or to public service or charitable groups or organizations."

Serving as a volunteer lawyer in the clinic as proposed would not violate ethics rules.



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