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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In August Governor Deval Patrick declared October 2010 to be Pro Bono Month, a proclamation that the BBA wholeheartedly endorsed. The BBA has a long history of promoting pro bono participation in the tradition of the organization’s founder, John Adams. Now more than ever, pro bono representation is critical to ensuring equal access to justice in the Commonwealth. Today there is an overwhelming demand for legal representation as a record number of individuals are forced to appear in court pro se because they cannot afford a lawyer and the demand for legal services far outstrips supply. We continue to hear from our members about how this affects not just access to justice but the administration of justice. Here are some of the things we have learned in the last year:
- Pro se litigants require more assistance from court staff to understand and navigate the judicial process.
- On one day in the Housing Court last fall, 203 cases were on the docket: in those cases, 189 tenants appeared pro se, as did 43 landlords.
- The courts are trying to keep pace with the demand with diminished resources and fewer and fewer staff.
- Delayed hearings and rulings can have direct negative impacts on individuals seeking relief from the judiciary on issues ranging from eviction to domestic abuse.
Our 2009-10 Public Interest Leaders recognized this growing problem and decided to focus their efforts on finding a creative way to address it. They sought to meet the needs of both indigent litigants and lawyers who wish to help, but may not have the time to devote to long-term projects. The group surveyed created a resource guide that focused solely on opportunities that would require 10 hours or less to complete.
On September 22, 2010, they held Take a Bite: Snack-Size Pro Bono Opportunities That Fit Your Practice here at the BBA. Over 15 organizations with more than 20 opportunities for pro bono work that require 10 or fewer hours participated. The event served as a great prelude to Pro Bono Month. October at the BBA has been buzzing with training programs and events that celebrate and promote the importance of pro bono representation. This has served as a great jumping off point for the BBA to continue its pro bono projects throughout the year.
For ways that you can get involved, check out the BBA’s calendar and our Public Service Program page. There is still time left to attend one of our events and to make a lasting impact on the lives of those in need.
Boston Bar Association
Government Relations Department
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