Monday, October 18, 2010

A New Pledge - To Strengthen Pro Bono Legal Assistance (Part 3 of 4)

(October 24-30, 2010, is “Celebrate Pro Bono Week” in the United States and Canada and November 8-12, 2010, is “National Pro Bono Week” in the United Kingdom. This is the first of a 4-part series illustrating the need, the challenges and the priceless rewards for volunteer legal professionals. For more information about these events, go to this site for the U.S. and this one for the U.K.)

In my earlier posts, I described the extent of the unmet civil legal needs of low-income families in the U.S. and the need for a stronger public+private partnership to address that need. This one focuses on action.

If you are a lawyer, paralegal, law student, court reporter, court clerk or legal secretary, ask yourself and your peers: is our firm/office/department doing all it can to help relieve the distress our neighbors feel when they cannot afford needed legal help? Some of you are. Thank you. For the rest, take the time to connect with your local pro bono program or look at their statewide website for opportunities to make a real difference. Use your special skills in new ways to help those unable to adequately help themselves through often simple legal problems.

Many paths; one mountain peak

Of course, depending on your present occupation, your volunteer opportunities may seem limited.

 Lawyers in private firms are a rich resource for pro bono programs. Whether sending younger associates to volunteer and build practical legal skills faster or actually co-counseling with staff legal services lawyers to bolster and mentor, firms traditionally have carried their pro bono service banners proudly. Lawyers in small and solo practice tend to have difficulty giving their time away with no one else to keep the revenue stream flowing, but still have traditionally supported pro bono projects either financially or through limited volunteer services. With more cases to place with volunteers than they have on their rosters, Pro bono coordinators sometimes provide CLE courses in partial compensation and always show their thanks openly.

 Corporate and government legal department lawyers have more restrictions on how they can participate, yet they continue to find new ways to help those in need and support legal aid as their “charity of choice.” Some volunteer in “advice-only” events, on speakers’ panels, with fundraising and to recruit other volunteers.

 Paralegals and unlicensed lawyers can be important and valuable volunteers, as well. Many para-professionals have the skills, experience and special knowledge of areas of the law that affect pro bono clients. These “subject matter experts” offer support to lawyers who may be venturing into a new area of the law or taking on several cases at once.

 Court reporters, too, are needed in pro bono programs and staff legal services. Discovery is expensive, but often unavoidable for the responding party. While some large law firms may donate the costs of discovery incurred in their cases, many small firms and solo practitioners cannot. Donated court reporter time helps keep the legal playing field level and the volunteer lawyer in the game.

 Other volunteers are key to successful pro bono programs in the areas of fundraising, communications, office management, volunteer recruiting and recognition, technology, and more. Whether earning community service hours for school or exploring the legal profession as a potential vocation, high school, college and law school students can easily find ways to help keep the program moving smoothly along.

Rest assured, there are plenty of opportunities for everyone. Lawyers and other legal professionals in private practice tend to provide more pro bono services than their counterparts in corporate and government legal departments. Government lawyers can provide pro bono services, despite some misconceptions on that. Corporate counsel can find opportunities tailored to their circumstances and skills at web sites such as this one by the ACC and this one at the Alliance for Justice,

Many ways to join the effort

Here are some ideas on how to make a difference that are specific to the legal profession:

Helping People. As any experienced volunteer lawyer will tell you, there is nothing in the for-profit side of our profession that comes close to the satisfaction we get from knowing we have helped someone resolve a personal legal matter. Very few pro bono cases are merely financial disputes, because legal aid is designed to address cases that are not lucrative for the private bar. These are compelling situations often filled with emotions such as fear, anger and depression. Even when you do not win 100% of the client’s goals, they are normally appreciative of the fact that someone helped them speak up, fight back or stand tall. (The smiles and hugs are hard to beat, too!)

Helping Groups. While some will debate whether or not free legal assistance to their local $10+ million symphony should qualify as “pro bono” work, the truth is that nonprofits need legal assistance, too. There are thousands of small nonprofit organizations in the U.S. Many of them were created by or primarily serve families eligible for free civil legal services, so their budgets are very thin. Helping them continue to help others without spending scarce funds on legal fees is one way to help many people in each legal matter. You may not meet all of your “clients,” but those you do work with are sure to let you know how grateful they are for your service.

Helping Pro Bono Programs. As with most nonprofit organizations, pro bono programs are under-funded, under-staffed and over-whelmed by demand for their assistance. Financial support is always needed, but so is emotional support and public recognition for volunteers and pro bono program staff. Those “in transition” can learn new skills, network with peers and keep their sanity by getting involved while they have the extra time to contribute. Anyone can send cookies, drop off supplies, commend staff in a blog or simply stop by to ask the program coordinator what is needed.

A New Pledge

So let’s make a new pledge together:

“I pledge my support, as a legal professional,
to my fellow citizens and less-fortunate neighbors.
And true to the people, for whom I now stand,
I’ll provide, and support, pro bono assistance
To help achieve Equal Access to Justice for All!”
(rest assured, no one will be jailed for NOT reciting it!)

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