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A call to our highest ideals.

"It is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status."

--U.S. SUPREME COURT JUSTICE LEWIS POWELL JR.

"It's time for greatness--not for greed. It's a time for idealism--not ideology. It is a time not just for compassionate words, but compassionate action."

--MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN

Just a week after the tragic collapse of the I-35W bridge in my city, Minneapolis, I attended the annual convention of the Minnesota Association for Justice, where a lawyer challenged members to offer pro bono legal services to the victims and families of that horrific catastrophe. By the end of the convention, a consortium had been formed.

The legal community similarly stepped up after Hurricane Katrina. Lawyers from across the country provided services (not to mention desks, office space, and computers) at no cost to help victims rebuild their lives. Lawyers helped low-income clients locate temporary housing, receive mortgage assistance, and file insurance claims. After 9/11, our organization established Trial Lawyers Care to help victims of the terrorist attacks.

Every day--outside the shadow of these unfathomable tragedies--lawyers dedicate their time and skills to assist people of limited means by providing legal services or participating in activities that improve the law, the legal system, and the profession.

They advocate on behalf of battered women seeking justice. They draft amicus briefs to prevent consumers from being trapped by mandatory arbitration clauses. They help the forgotten on death row with postconviction appeals. They testify before Congress to prevent federal preemption from usurping state authority and weakening regulatory scrutiny. In many ways, lawyers provide unpaid representation to clients and causes that might otherwise be priced out of the justice system.

Lawyers provide these legal services because it is the right thing to do. From the Latin, pro bono publico means "for the public good." Our profession recognizes that representation of low-income people in the civil justice system is essential. When lawyers were asked in a 2005 ABA survey to rank how influential various factors were in motivating them to perform pro bono legal services, 70 percent indicated a combined sense of professional responsibility and personal satisfaction. This was followed by recognition and understanding of the needs of the poor.

But it is not solely altruism that motivates lawyers to perform pro bono legal service. Nor need it be. Pro bono work is a valuable training and professional development tool.

It provides lawyers, particularly young lawyers, with a chance to develop skills and acquire trial experience, which is increasingly coveted given the rise of alternative dispute resolution and the decline of the jury trial. Pro bono cases also provide opportunities for more seasoned lawyers to supervise and mentor new members of the profession. These benefits spill over by providing a legal practice of any size with a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining attorneys.

Pro bono work also creates marketing and networking opportunities. Lawyers can build credibility in their practice, raise their visibility in their market, and gain a referral network.

And pro bono activity is good for the profession. It helps restore public confidence in lawyers and the legal system.

Missing the mark

Despite these many benefits and the recommendation of Rule 6.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct that lawyers devote 50 hours to pro bono work each year, our profession has fallen far short of that mark. While many members of the bar contribute a significant amount of time to pro bono representation and give financial support to legal assistance for the poor, most do not. Most lawyers make no contribution at all, and the average for the bar as a whole is less than half an hour a week and 50 cents a day.

Commentators have cited several possible reasons for this low participation rate, including competing commitments to family obligations and the lack of time, malpractice insurance coverage, and experience in the practice areas needed by pro bono clients. I believe that we, as a profession, must collectively address these structural obstacles so that each of us can fulfill our individual pro bono service responsibilities.

As we reflect this month on all the things for which we are thankful, I challenge every member of our organization to meet the ABA's recommended contribution of 50 hours of pro bono legal service a year. At just an hour a week, AAJ members alone could contribute millions of hours per year directly to people of limited means to safeguard our justice system and keep the courts open to all.
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Title Annotation:President's PAGE
Author:Peterson, Kathleen Flynn
Publication:Trial
Date:Nov 1, 2007
Words:753
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