This past summer Minneapolis played host to a meeting of the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation of America. They help fund Legal Aid programs throughout our country, and form the backbone of our nation’s pro bono resources. The LSC president eloquently reminds us that both the first sentence of our Constitution (“We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice . . . .”), and the last line of our Pledge of Allegiance (“with liberty and justice for all”), attest that justice is a defining aspiration of this country.
Unfortunately, our founders came up short in their efforts to “establish justice” in the Constitution. While the right to counsel in criminal matters was addressed later in the Bill of Rights and eventually defined in Gideon v. Wainwright, there is no similar provision for civil legal representation.
For whatever reason, the right to assistance of counsel in civil cases is left to the vicissitudes of the marketplace. Hence many people, and not just poor people, are without legal advice or representation in civil matters. As lawyers we are intimately aware of the workings of our justice system, and so our view that assistance of counsel is part of what is required for justice is a well-informed one.
It’s Up to Us
Because the Constitution’s reach to form a more perfect union falls short of its grasp, it is left to our profession, as the main beneficiaries and participants in the legal “marketplace,” to make up the difference. So many lawyers do so much pro bono work. We should remember to thank and celebrate them. But let’s not kid ourselves. Many of us, myself included, are not doing all that we can or should do. Our collective efforts to date fall short.
Some assume that the legal needs of the very poor are met by Legal Aid. But only about a third of income-qualified clients who turn to Legal Aid are accepted. This is due to chronic underfunding of Legal Aid coupled with the high demand for services. This deficiency has actually been getting worse, rather than better, as the number of poor has risen and funding for Legal Aid has declined since the turn of the century. The same holds true for the array of nonprofits outside of Legal Aid. Many of these organizations are able to help people in need under higher income eligibility limits, but the demand far outstrips their ability to meet it. And then there is the vast number of working individuals who live paycheck to paycheck. They may not qualify for help from legal service providers, but they still can’t afford a lawyer. They are as completely shut off from justice as are the poor. Ask any judge or social service worker about the magnitude of this problem. They witness “the justice gap” daily.
Try as we might to help, MSBA’s pro bono efforts fall short too. Take for example our Northstar Lawyer program. This program encourages lawyers to meet Rule 6.1’s aspiration of 50 hours of annual pro bono work by publicly recognizing those lawyers each year. Less than 7 percent of our members have come forward to say they meet this aspiration. While we are sure there are many more who would qualify as Northstar Lawyers if they simply took the time to enroll, the fact that we are starting with only 7 percent of the membership who volunteered to share this news about themselves tells you that most members are simply not there yet. We have a lot of room for improvement.
The MSBA Can Help
We can do more. If you are still short of doing your part, and are looking for some help, MSBA wants to help you get there. Today more than ever, there are ways to do pro bono that are readily available, and that won’t interfere with your other professional obligations and goals. There is still time to hit your 50-hour mark by year’s end.
One way to start may be to attend our annual pro bono conference on October 27. Its cost is nominal, and it includes CLE credits and lunch. You can get some great ideas and helpful inspiration, and you will make great connections to resources that will help you meet your goal. Another easy entry point is Minnesota Legal Advice Online (www.mnlegaladvice.org). This allows you to provide pro bono service “on demand” by responding to online requests for legal advice. It is incredibly user-friendly for lawyers seeking to contribute pro bono time on their own schedule, and without ever leaving the office. There are plenty of other alternatives too. Rather than overwhelm you with the options, I suggest you just contact MSBA and get in touch with Lindsay Davis (LDavis@mnbar.org) or Steve Marchese (SMarchese@mnbar.org), our staff resources for pro bono. They would love to hear from you, and are happy to help.
Let me leave you with my own “secret,” learned from doing pro bono work. In over 30 years of practicing law and representing individuals with great need, some of my greatest memories and deepest sense of satisfaction with the practice of law has come from seeing results for the clients who did not pay for my service, and from experiencing their gratitude. It is a really nice feeling. You owe it to yourself to experience it if you haven’t already.
Michael W. Unger is President of the Minnesota State Bar Association. He is a Certified Civil Trial Specialist at Unger Law Office in Minneapolis, representing negligence victims for serious injuries and wrongful death. He is also on the adjunct faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School.