The Significance of Pro Bono Service

Pro bono is an important part of every lawyer’s career, so when a judicial candidate’s pro bono work came into question at a recent Governor’s Council hearing, we took issue.  An attorney’s commitment to pro bono should be applauded and not criticized.  Some would say attorneys have a professional obligation to do pro bono work because upholding fairness, credibility and impartiality of our justice system is the right thing to do, especially for those who cannot otherwise afford an attorney. 

Lawyers have a unique skill set and knowledge of our justice system that can be used to provide access to justice for those who might not otherwise have it in both the civil and criminal arenas.  This sometimes means representing unpopular clients or causes, regardless of the allegations.  It can also mean filing an amicus brief involving vital legal principles, without regard to the political climate.

As the great Justice Felix Frankfurter once said, “it is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.” Lawyers, often providing their skills on a pro bono basis, ensure the integrity of the adversarial process.  The BBA’s first president, John Adams, gained a certain degree of notoriety and, eventually, the utmost respect, for his work defending British soldiers charged with the murder of patriots at the Boston Massacre. 

The BBA is proud to bestow awards on lawyers performing pro bono service, and is especially cognizant of the fact that advocating on behalf of the criminally accused or people on the margins of society requiring assistance with homelessness, mental illness, and Social Security may be misunderstood in quarters outside bar associations, making these attorneys the targets of criticism.  Unfortunately, some people confuse the preservation of individual rights with advocacy for a political cause, but the bottom line is that acccess to justice for all is one of the pillars of our justice system and of our democracy.  Lawyers should not be confused with their clients, and pro bono work should not be a mark of shame for any lawyer, and should never disqualify a nominee from judicial service.

- Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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