First Place, Simmons and Fletcher, P.C., Excellence in Ethics Scholarship
July 9th, 2018
By: Hope Goodman
Our society and the legal system that dictates it have reached a crossroads. Funds needed to afford legal services continue to diminish as conditions that birth poverty persist and the income gap widens. But, the need for legal services within the most vulnerable communities in the United States continues to grow. Current immigration policies have fueled a drastic development in related legal needs. Rhetoric and actions by the current administration have placed many folks in fear of losing their civil rights. A tough-on-crime approach for our criminal justice system results in astronomical case numbers, high expenses for mass incarceration, and taxing court costs for hearings, appeals, and class actions. This crossroads created by increased demand for legal services but decreased funds to pay for it forces our public interest attorneys and organizations to shoulder the great burden of serving every low-income and indigent client. Additional manpower, time, funding, and resources, however, have not been offered to balance out this increased caseload. Public interest attorneys are fantastic lawyers who are passionate and tenacious about their work and clients. Due to the sheer number of cases they must juggle on a daily basis, though, their passion and skills are not always enough to provide appropriate representation in every case. Therefore, cases fall through the cracks and are settled before they should be and folks are not receiving the representation they deserve. Being low-income or impoverished should never be a valid excuse for why such folks receive worse representation than those with wealth. Such a scenario is a sign of a broken democracy. This crossroads is where pro bono service must become a daily feature of our legal system.
Working in multiple public interest legal settings has afforded me the opportunity to witness the immense strain on our public interest system and its impact on outcomes for indigent and low-income clients. Interning as an investigator with a public defender’s office just outside of Washington D.C., I watched attorneys struggle to balance a minimum of 15 cases at any one time. These cases did not afford months of preparation; rather, they were often set for trial within a week of being assigned representation. There was so much investigation to do in such a short time, which is where I came in. Attorneys relied on undergraduate investigators to produce good evidence within a short time frame, which was a great growth experience, but maybe not the best service for the client. One case in particular during my time with the office highlighted the necessity of pro bono legal services from private law firms. My supervisor was assigned a special post-conviction case on top of his regular caseload. Our client was convicted of murder at the age of 17 in Maryland and sentenced to life without parole. When the legality of juvenile life without parole was recently successfully challenged in the state of Maryland, our client was presented with the opportunity to make a legal argument for a new sentencing hearing. A case that has over 20 years of history was a huge burden for both my supervisor and myself. We always had to push back the work for this case in order to take care of more immediate ones, which undoubtedly prevented us from giving his case the attention and care it deserved. This would have been a fantastic case for pro bono service, especially since it required much time and resources.
A similar situation with the burden of caseloads played out during my time as a case manager at a human trafficking survivor resource center about eight miles outside Washington D.C. Since its inception three years ago, the center has seen a continuous increase in immigration legal needs amongst its clients. The center only has one immigration attorney, though. During my time there, this attorney was incredibly overextended, which led her to give much of the non-courtroom work to the law clerks. Again, this is a great learning opportunity for law students, but it may be at the expense of providing the best representation the center can offer to particularly vulnerable clients. Because the center functions solely on grant money, it did not have the funds available to hire a second immigration attorney. This would have been another perfect situation for outside attorneys to provide pro bono services to our center’s clients who desperately needed it. Both of these experiences emphasized the critical importance pro bono work has in our legal system. Pro bono service is necessary because the public interest sector does not have the capacity to positively manage the exponential demand for legal services. This crossroads require private sector attorneys to no longer consider pro bono assignments as a side project, gift, charity or simple kindness. Actively seeking out and offering pro bono services should be an expectation for every lawyer.
Along with being necessary, pro bono work is beneficial for every party involved. The individual lawyers providing pro bono service are presented with an opportunity for growth and impact. It offers an open door to developing a new legal passion or practicing an existing one without making it the source of income. If every law student was molded to be passionate about using legal skills in the spirit of public service, our country may not be at the crossroads it currently faces. This new found passion can be complimented by enhanced skills and expertise. Attorneys can hone transferable skills and experience that will assist with future job transitions. For example, working with low-income and indigent clients can help an attorney to enhance her interpersonal communication skills across difference. It is often the case that recipients of pro bono service have different lived experiences than the attorneys offering it, which fosters an environment in which lawyers can practice communicating with diverse individuals while still facilitating shared interest. Next, pro bono work requires a sense of patience and resourcefulness. These cases are not easy or straightforward. Rather, they involve real people who are vulnerable and struggling in many domains of their lives, not just in the legal system. The complexity of this human situation encourages an attorney to adapt and think in innovative ways in offering the best representation possible. Finally, pro bono service ignites a sense of tenacity within a lawyer’s practice. These cases are raw, meaningful and have massive consequences on folks’ lives. As a result, the lawyer must become a tenacious advocate, which can be transferred to any legal setting.
Beyond the individual, pro bono work benefits communities. On the surface, it may just seem like free legal service. However, a more nuanced analysis shows that this service can be truly life changing for the folks who receive it. Contact with the legal system often results in serious short and long-term harm for marginalized individuals and their communities. Legal issues can break up families, push them towards poverty, and lead to hopelessness. Individuals feel lost while communities feel undervalued and disrespected. Pro bono work that offers these communities quality representation can be the positive break they need in fighting back against adversity. A break can then lead to long-term positive change, such as reuniting families, preventing marginalized groups from being taken advantage of by employers or housing landlords, removing an instinct towards violence to solve problems, and reversing the cycle of poverty. Pro bono work makes a greater impact than just in the courtroom. It changes lives and provides communities with support, hope and empowerment.
This positive impact on communities helps to create a better legal system. Pro bono service encourages lawyers to challenge their practice by engaging in meaningful work. It takes some burden off of public interest attorneys, which allows them to do their best work every single time and avoid burnout. By alleviating the financial menace the legal system presents to vulnerable communities, pro bono work facilitates relationship building, “buy in” and reciprocated trust between communities and the system. This improved relationship can provide the legal system with legitimacy in the eyes of those it affects most, which I do not believe it currently owns. Current rhetoric and controversy leads many marginalized groups to either avoid the legal system at all costs or attack it as being corrupt and biased. Without legitimacy and authenticity, the legal system cannot serve its purpose. Pro bono work can begin to reshape this distance and mistrust, leading citizens to utilize the legal system as the helpful and supportive resource that it should be.
To think like a lawyer and to be a lawyer means to engage in service for others. This is a simple idea that should be engraved in every law student’s mind before she enters the profession.
Lawyers are gifted with a great deal of power in our society. With this power comes greater responsibility to use it to benefit others. One way lawyers can fulfill this responsibility is through regular pro bono service. There are many vulnerable folks in our country who have had their power and voice taken from them by other individuals or larger institutions. Pro bono representation provides an outlet for their voices and needs to be heard by the especially powerful legal system. Due to its critical importance in our modern legal system, pro bono work must no longer be an exception for attorneys to do in their spare time; it must become an expectation for every lawyer from the first day she enters the profession. If a lawyer has the resources, she should use them to make a true difference in others’ lives. Honestly, I find it frustrating that the importance of pro bono legal service even needs to be a conversation or a prompt to write about in 2018. Engaging in service for the most vulnerable folks in our society should be an automatic instinct of a lawyer. It should be written into their position descriptions. Hopefully, one day this conversation will no longer be necessary because every lawyer will understand the responsibility that accompanies her privilege of being educated in the law. Pro bono work will be just as important as for profit work. That is a future I look forward to being a part of.
About the Author
Hope Goodman is the first place recipient of the 2018 Simmons and Fletcher, P.C., Excellence in Ethics Scholarship. She attended the University of Maryland, College Park, to earn her Bachelor’s degrees in Criminology & Criminal Justice and Psychology. Hope is excited to begin her first year as a law student at University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and plans to pursue a career in the criminal justice system as a public interest attorney after earning her degree.