A Richmond law student took a routine assignment beyond the classroom this month when she pitched a proposal for a pro bono reporting requirement to a group of Richmond lawyers.

Brittany Burns, a second-year student at the University of Richmond School of Law, enrolled in Public Policy Research and Drafting during the fall semester with Prof. Tara Casey. Each student in the class was given a semester-long assignment and paired with a local non-profit. Burns’ assignment was to discover a way to help close the justice gap in Virginia and explain how it could be implemented.

Burns partnered with the Greater Richmond Bar Foundation to develop a topic. She decided to propose that Virginia should institute a pro bono reporting requirement for its attorneys.

“It would require attorneys to report the hours of pro bono that they did,” Burns said. “It wouldn’t require attorneys to do pro bono and there would be no penalty for reporting zero.”

Nine states have adopted similar requirements, and Burns studied three of them to see what impact the laws had on financial contributions to legal aid departments and pro bono hours. Two states showed increases in pro bono hours contributed by state attorneys and all three states noticed increases in financial contributions to legal aid.

“Without having any sort of reporting and collection of this data, the legal aid community doesn’t really know what parts of Virginia need more help or what areas of the law need more energy and resources dedicated to them,” Burns said. “We’re kind of shooting in the dark with our pro bono efforts because there’s no benchmark to measure against.”

Burns’ policy memo not only impressed her professor, but it made an impact on local legal community. After the executive director of the Greater Richmond Bar Foundation saw Burns’ proposal, she arranged for Burns to present it to Virginia’s Access to Justice Commission during a recent Board meeting.

The Access to Justice Commission, established by the Supreme Court of Virginia, seeks to promote equal access to justice in the Commonwealth, specifically as it relates to the civil legal needs of Virginia residents. It’s working on problems similar to those Burns addressed in her policy memo, so her research gave the group another window into how to accomplish its mission.

Burns said her report would ultimately be incorporated into the Commission’s presentation to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

“Hopefully, something is adopted,” Burns said. “The costs are relatively low and the numbers [from other states] are promising.”

Burns understood the hesitation by some in the Virginia legal community to adopt a pro bono reporting, but hoped that her report and the work of the Access to Justice Commission could create positive change.

“If we adopt the reporting requirement, at the very least we get the data and we know where we need to improve and focus our resources,” Burns said.  “At best, we get the increases in legal aid donations and pro bono participation that these other states have seen.”