By Leo I. Brisbois
Boozhoo Niijii; Gdinimikoon. Hello, Friend; I greet you in a good way.
The Ojibwe/Anishinaabe people, like a great many Indian tribes, have a ceremony known as a giveaway—miinidiwag. In it the person who is the focus of the ceremony does not receive gifts, but rather, they hand them away. Indian people generally assign stature in the course of a lifetime not by how much someone is able to accumulate but by how much someone gives away to others.
Equal justice under the law is not merely a caption on the façade of the [United States] Supreme Court building. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society … it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.
—Justice Lewis Powell
The foregoing observation of Justice Powell expresses a national aspiration which sets American justice—both its concepts and application—apart from that of much of the rest of the world.
The ability and opportunity to seek and obtain justice anywhere within the United States, and thereby measure up to the ideals of our nation’s founders as well as the general expectations of most of our neighbors, should not depend on “how much justice one can afford.” I do not mean to imply that the results of judicial proceedings are for sale to the highest bidder. Rather, I intend simply to note that the intricacy of the legal system makes having legal counsel a virtual necessity, and to recognize how economic challenges, especially in recent times, have often put necessary legal services outside of the financial resources and reach of a great many people.
As attorneys, we all understand and, I hope, accept that the legal profession holds a unique position in our society. Through the delivery of pro bono services by its members, the profession at large acknowledges that position and seeks to do what it can to close the gap between our national aspiration as expressed by Justice Powell and the effective reality that economic status often does prevent access to the justice system for so many of our fellow citizens.
Pro bono services can take many forms depending upon each of our different skill sets, interests, and values. The specific shape and form of pro bono service is not as important as the fact that the service is provided at all, thereby helping to satisfy a legal need that would otherwise go unmet. As has previously been observed by so many, pro bono can include, but need not be limited to, representation of a single client over many years of complex litigation. It could include regular volunteering at a legal clinic, or taking a case from a volunteer lawyer referral organization, or providing free legal service to a community-based nonprofit so that its own limited resources can be focused on meeting its constituents’ need for other types of social services.
The opportunities to do pro bono are virtually limitless because, as it unfortunately often seems, the need is limitless. The critical point being that any act of pro bono service undertaken, regardless of shape or form, is an important and indispensible one because every act of pro bono makes a real difference in someone’s life.
This month, the Minnesota State Bar Association is releasing its 2009 Pro Bono Report which will illustrate and document the great effort so many Minnesota attorneys have already expended in an attempt to address some of the unmet legal needs of their fellow citizens who cannot afford to purchase legal services; it will also serve to acknowledge and express a genuine appreciation for those tremendous efforts; and I hope it will encourage and inspire even more Minnesota attorneys to make regular pro bono service a part of their professional lives.
Abraham Lincoln said, “[a] lawyer’s time and advice are [their] stock in trade.” The lawyer’s time and advice are the sole means by which they generate wealth for themselves. Thus, by doing pro bono work lawyers not only give of their time, but they also effectively give up the opportunity to accumulate additional wealth. Accordingly, by regularly doing pro bono work over the course of your career, you will be engaging in your own form of a giveaway—miinidiwag—and the stature you attain during your professional and personal lifetime will be secure in your having given to others so much of that which is your greatest professional asset.
Miigwech bizindawiyeg. Thank you for listening to me.
LEO I. BRISBOIS is president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, and is senior counsel with the law firm of Stich, Angell, Kreidler & Dodge, PA, Minneapolis, MN. He is engaged in a civil litigation and appellate practice primarily in the areas of personal injury defense, insurance coverage, construction litigation, commercial premises liability, and products liability, as well as, serving as an ADR neutral. He received both his B.A., and J.D. degrees with honors from Hamline University, St. Paul, MN. Mr. Brisbois is the first MSBA President of known American Indian heritage and descent.>