2020 Second Place Winner Excellence in Ethics Scholarship
By Meghan Flanigen
When I think about the Latin etymology of pro bono publico, its meaning holds up to the hopeful ideals and aim of our legal system. A common translation of the Latin preposition, pro, translates to “on behalf of.” The recipient of the pro is, naturally, publico. This seems so obvious, and so innate in meaning, that it is almost overlooked. But embedded in the words pro bono is the very essence of our legal system, a system wherein lawyers are truly advocates working for the good of others, and for public flourishment. Upon examining the etymology of pro bono’s converse, pro se, one begins to understand why pro bono is so important. Pro se translates to “on behalf of themselves.” The very reason for the existence of lawyers is so that justice is achieved not by individuals standing alone, forced to represent themselves. Rather, lawyers exist so that our legal system functions in a communal, collaborative vein, with lawyers helping others and working for the good of society.
One of the first things I learned from my time spent in my hometown’s courthouse over various summers is that pro se is extremely difficult, and oftentimes, heartbreaking, for the individual making his or her case. I also found myself in absolute awe of the vessel of knowledge at a lawyer’s disposal. There are so many processes, measures, types of paperwork, and myriad forms of lingo embedded in a legal case that the presence of a lawyer is not only valuable but almost necessary. I thought to myself, if I ever was in a position where I could not afford an attorney, I would be overwhelmed if I had to represent myself in court. The human life behind a case is regularly straightforward, simple, but the legal mechanisms behind protecting such humanity are not. I spent many hours sitting on the court floor lobbies for the counseling of clients before court. Often, they would say things to me like “I just want to see my daughter” or “I want to go home.” Behind every domestic violence dispute, custody battle, or evictions proceeding, there is a human, merely wishing for their children or the comfort of their home. By design, lawyers are supposed to represent their clients and serve as a middle man or woman between the client and the very intricate and complicated justice system. This makes the idea of pro bono all the more vital to ensuring that human needs are met.
The benefits of pro bono are profound, too, not just for clients but for the attorneys themselves. The sense of fulfillment that comes from doing good is unparalleled. Participating in pro bono work allows lawyers to fulfill their career goals, and motivations that likely inspired them to pursue this profession in the first place. The concept of pro bono stems from the core purpose of being a lawyer in our legal system, that is, advocating for others. What higher level of advocacy can be achieved than participating in the legal work solely for the good of others, rather than monetary rewards? Pro bono work is a measure of the health and wellness of our legal system: the more pro bono work, the higher the level of pure advocacy. If an individual lacks an advocate, this signifies that something is amiss in the system whose design is precisely to ensure that representation that is accessible for all. Pro bono work empowers an attorney to realize in practice this cornerstone and necessary condition of justice.
Pro bono work also affords increased opportunities for lawyers to get to know their communities and to expand their horizons in terms of the kinds of legal matters they get to tackle. As for the strengthening of communal bonds, knowing that one is taking on a case merely for the wellbeing of others keeps a lawyer’s mind focused, clearheaded, and with altruism in mind. With this mindset, attorneys can hone in on embracing people of all backgrounds, and dedicate themselves fully to the quest for justice at hand. In the course of pro bono work, these attorneys can branch out into areas of law they normally would not, which correspondingly means that they will learn what issues their community members are facing, as they are in a legal forum in which they do not regularly frequent. Doubly, this branching out means that lawyers will heighten their legal expertise, capacity for professional development, and level of confidence, which will benefit not only themselves but the functioning of the legal system and the community as a whole.
Most importantly, engaging in pro bono projects will ensure that we are staying true to the promise of our legal system. Our legal system was designed to ensure that participants honor the principle that every person deserves representation, and that without paying homage to such a right, justice cannot be achieved. If we aim to maintain the austere legacy, hope, and equality rooted in the framework of our legal system, pro bono work is not only salubrious, it is vital.
To me, as a Christian, my faith has also taught me about the kind of lawyer I hope to be, and why pro bono is so central to our communal and legal system’s wellbeing. I was reading an article on a Christian Legal Society website which cited a portion from Proverbs 14:31, 22:22-23 that really resonated with me. It reads: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God… Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case…” I hope to use my understanding from Christian teachings as an attorney to always strive to do good for others, be kind, and understand their perspective so that I can honor the Lord by demonstrating compassion for all people, and defending the needy.
I am driven to be an attorney so that I can learn more about the legality inextricably bound to human life so that when the time comes, I can help others who cannot help themselves and serve as a voice for the voiceless. I hope to use my knowledge of the legal system to ensure that justice is met, regardless of cost. Our legal system obtains its vital commitment to equality and justice through the hearts and minds of its lawyers. From this standpoint, pro bono is the means of preserving not just our legal system, but human dignity and life.