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Bar President's Message

Nicole J. Benjamin, Esq., President, Rhode Island Bar Association

Charity, Public Service and Gratitude

Nicole J. Benjamin, Esq

President, Rhode Island Bar Association

“It is therefore incumbent on us to give our time, talent, and treasure to help close the gap on unmet legal needs.”


As a child of the ’90s, one of the earliest lessons I can recall on the importance of charity and service comes from an unlikely source—the chart-topping American hip-hop group Arrested Development.

            In Mrs. Muir’s sixth grade class, my classmates and I were challenged to develop the most memorable, attention-grabbing opening for a “public” speech. My topic was charity. And for my memorable, attention-grabbing opening, I stood in front of my sixth-grade class and recited the first ballad of the Billboard hit “Mr. Wendal” from Arrested Development’s debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of… It went like this:

“Here, have a dollar

In fact, no brotherman here, have two

Two dollars means a snack for me

But it means a big deal to you.”

            Years later, I struggle with the appropriateness of quoting lyrics that beat out of my Sony Walkman in 1992 in any professional setting, let alone the Bar Journal, but it seems fitting in this season of giving.

When the Rhode Island Supreme Court unified the Bar Association in 1973, the Bar Association reported to the Court that it:

provides aid to the Court and the public through its members by maintaining a lawyers referral program, by maintaining a panel of lawyers who serve without compensation in borderline indigent cases and by maintaining a panel of lawyers who volunteer to serve indigent persons when called upon to do so by the Justices of the Federal District Court of the District of Rhode Island and by the Justices of the District Court of the State of Rhode Island.[fn 1]

            Over the course of the next fifty years, the Rhode Island Bar Association’s public services program has expanded greatly, as has the need for its services.

            A report from the American Bar Association in 2016 found that 80 percent of the civil legal needs of lower-to-middle-income individuals in the United States went unmet.[fn 2] The need is equally great here in Rhode Island. Each month, the calls RIBA receives from the public seeking the assistance of a lawyer are staggering. In August, the RIBA’s Public Services department fielded 1,420 calls. 743 clients were referred to Lawyer Referral Service panel attorneys, with an additional 191 clients referred to reduced fee panels. 63 elderly clients were referred to elderly panel attorneys, with an additional 34 referred to reduced fee elderly panels, and another 13 were assisted through the pro bono elderly program. 66 cases were handled by the Volunteer Lawyer Program, primarily in the areas of family law, bankruptcy law and landlord/tenant law. Clients were also referred through the Lawyers for the Arts panel, the Armed Forces Legal Services Project and RISERVES. These numbers are not outliers. Month after month, RIBA’s Public Services department fields thousands of calls, many of which are from those unable to afford the services of an attorney. You can make a meaningful impact on our community by joining one of the many programs offered through the Public Services department. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Public Services Director Susan Fontaine at

            Just as the public need has expanded, so too has the willingness of our members to devote their time and talent to these programs. One need not look any further than the nominations for the Dorothy Lohmann Community Service Award, the Victoria M. Almeida Servant Leader Award, the Pro Bono Publico Award, and the Continuing Service Award to find the selfless servants among us. The extraordinary stories of service and representation of those in need that are recounted in each nomination reflect the remarkable generosity and dedication of our members.

            The need, however, continues to grow, and the work is never done. It is therefore incumbent on us to give our time, talent, and treasure to help close the gap on unmet legal needs.

            The same lessons of charity and service that I learned from the lyrics to “Mr. Wendal” in the sixth grade are reflected in Rule 6.1 of the Rhode Island Rules of Professional Conduct. As our Chair of our Public Service Involvement Committee, Christine J. Engustian, reminds us, Rule 6.1 makes it a “professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.”[fn 3] And “[b]ecause the provision of pro bono services is a professional responsibility, it is the individual ethical commitment of each lawyer.”[fn 4]

            The rule establishes an “aspirational goal” that attorneys render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.[fn 5] The rule provides:

            In fulfilling this responsibility, the lawyer should:

(a) provide a substantial majority of the (50) hours of legal services without fee or expectation of fee to:

            (1)        persons of limited means or

            (2) charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental, and educational organizations

in matters that are designed primarily to address the needs of persons of limited means; and

(b) provide any additional services through:

(1) delivery of legal services at no fee or substantially reduced fee to individuals, groups, or organizations seeking to secure or protect civil rights, civil liberties or public rights, or charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental, and educational organizations in matters in furtherance of their organizational purposes, where the payment of standard legal fees would significantly deplete the organization’s economic resources or would be otherwise inappropriate;

            (2) delivery of legal services at a substantially reduced fee to persons of limited means; or

            (3) participation in activities for improving the law, the legal system or the legal

profession.[fn 6]

            In addition to delineating the service expected of attorneys, Rule 6.1 also addresses the charity expected of attorneys, providing that “a lawyer should voluntarily contribute financial support to organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means.”[fn 7]

            The rule recognizes that we are all busy professionals and is not blind to the fact that we have other professional commitments.[fn 8] But, as the rule also recognizes, “personal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer.”[fn 9] As “Mr. Wendal” put it:

“Now that I know him, to give him money isn’t charity.

He gives me some knowledge, I buy him some shoes.”

            While Rule 6.1 is aspirational only, as a result of mandatory pro bono requirements at many law schools, our newer lawyers have come into the practice with a profound appreciation for public service. Long before they have ever had a paying client, many of our newer lawyers have experienced the power and satisfaction of utilizing their own talents to help someone in need. That satisfaction will continue to fuel their desire to serve others, and I hope it will be contagious.

            While pro bono service and charity are the focal points of Rule 6.1, the rule also recognizes that there are myriad other forms of public service. To that end, Rule 6.1 recognizes the value of lawyers engaging in activities that improve the law, the legal system or the legal profession. Comment 8 provides:

Serving on bar association committees, serving on boards of pro bono or legal services programs, taking part in Law Day activities, acting as a continuing legal education instructor, a mediator or an arbitrator, and engaging in legislative lobbying to improve the law, the legal system or the profession are a few examples of the many activities that fall within this paragraph. [fn 10]

            I warmly welcome you to join our bar committees, take part in our Law Day activities, and, of course, engage with our public services department.

            In this season of gratitude and thanksgiving, I am especially grateful for the exceedingly generous and selfless servants among us. As you establish your goals and aspirations for the coming year, I encourage you to think about the altruistic responsibilities and ethical obligations each of us has under Rule 6.1 as attorneys admitted to practice in Rhode Island and to carry out those responsibilities by giving your time, talent, and treasure to help close the gap on unmet legal needs.



1 Petition of the Rhode Island Bar Association for Unification of the Bar of the State of Rhode Island, No. 1156-M.P. (1973). 

2 ABA Comm’n on the Future of Legal Servs., Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States (Aug. 2016), available at

3 R.I. R. Prof’l Cond. 6.1.

4 R.I. R. Prof’l Cond. 6.1 cmt. 9.

5 Id. cmt. 12.

6 R.I. R. Prof’l Cond. 6.1.

7 Id.

8 Id. cmt. 1.

9 Id. cmt. 1.

10 R.I. R. Prof’l Cond. 6.1 cmt. 8

The Bar Journal assumes no responsibility for opinions, statements, and facts in any article, editorial, column, or book review, except to the extent that, by publication, the subject matter merits attention. Neither the opinions expressed in any article, editorial, column, or book review nor their content represent the official view of the Rhode Island Bar Association or the views of its members.