FORTUNE – The promise of pro bono work with a corporate law salary is alluring, especially for budding lawyers who head to law school in the hope of righting wrongs but soon confront the reality of massive student loans. But the industry's changing economics are making it tougher to give away lawyers' hours as freely as in previous years.
Last year, the percentage of free legal hours slid noticeably compared to 2009. The decline comes as the perilous economy pushes a greater number of people into poverty, which drives up bankruptcy, child custody, foreclosure and domestic violence cases, among others. At the same time, budget deficits are leading to cutbacks in government funding of no or low-cost legal services for those with limited means.
As free legal hours fall, the American Bar Association and other groups are trying to come up with new ways to enlist lawyers to assist in navigating the court system. Those involved in civil cases do not have a right to a lawyer becuase the Constitution guarantees legal representation only to those who are accused criminally.
In civil cases, which are far more numerous than criminal proceedings, the federal government funds some legal aid for the needy, and lawyers traditionally donate millions of unpaid hours every year to help. The ABA estimates that 63 million low-income people (of which 22 million are children) are qualified for civil representation.
The increase in the American poverty rate has exacerbated a crisis that's already being felt in the courts due to funding cutbacks and diminishing pro bono legal aid. In response, the ABA held its first National Pro Bono Summit last month to explore new ways to ramp up lawyer participation. More
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