Reflections on Pro Bono Month

Issue November 2009 By Valerie A. Yarashus

Lawyers, by nature and by training, tend to reach out to help others on a volunteer basis more than people in virtually any other profession. This is right and appropriate. As Norman Thomas said, "To us ... much has been given; of us much is required." And yet, there is always more - much more - to be done. This is reflected in a resolution, passed by our House of Delegates in September, urging all to recognize the contributions of our legal community to help those most in need and encouraging all of us to do more to get involved in pro bono work and to financially support the legal aid system.

I decided to start the month of October (Pro Bono Month) by observing a typical day at the Hampden County Housing Court in Springfield, where 85 percent of litigants are unrepresented (also called self-represented, but the truth is that they're unrepresented). The entrance to the courthouse was the first important experience - the line waiting to get through security went out the door and around the front of the courthouse. I briefly thought about using my bar card to get around the line, but there was no easy way to do it in that courthouse because there is only one door (not two), so I would have had to cut in front of people instead of walking through a separate line. The person directly in front of me was in a wheelchair, by himself, so I decided to stay in line. After about 10 minutes, we reached the inside of a courthouse that was severely overcrowded. I went upstairs and observed two packed courtrooms - one of which probably had more than 150 people in it, with standing room only. Everywhere I looked, there was a pressing mass of people: working-class people of all races and backgrounds, landlords as well as tenants. There were people with obvious mental and physical disabilities, and there were parents or grandparents with babies and toddlers.

At this court, though, they have developed an impressive network of organizations which are on site to provide support services (legal and non-legal) for litigants. This ranges from a Lawyer-for-a-Day program sponsored by the Women's Bar Foundation and various law schools, to having a social worker on site who can follow up to let litigants know what government benefits they are entitled to receive. It includes programs designed to help people find affordable housing, and it includes programs that offer free clothing. Despite the outward appearance of chaos because of so much overcrowding, there is an area set aside as a much-needed retreat for assistance: a room dedicated to meeting space for pro bono lawyers with any litigant who needs assistance, and there were many, many people lined up to make use of these services. If these programs didn't exist, it is difficult to imagine how the court could function.

Tenants being evicted were expected to fill out an Answer to the Complaint if they had not already done so when their case was called; it is clear that many of them would not have had an adequate reading level to be able to do this in the most rudimentary way without some basic assistance. The pro bono support offered, though, went much further than this and extended all the way up to full representation in some cases. I observed a mediation involving a woman with five children who was about to be evicted for nonpayment of rent, but through the skill of one of the court mediators, a weekly payment plan was negotiated, together with an agreement for making some safety-related repairs, and she and her family were able to stay in their home.

My impression of the day was of inadequate resources in the face of crushing need, and yet, through the hard work of many determined people (including at least a dozen pro bono lawyers), the people who came through the doors seeking assistance were able to receive a remarkably high level of services.

Two weeks later, I decided to attend the MBA's Dial-A-Lawyer for Veterans program

Once I saw that they needed attorneys who could do triage as well as answer substantive legal questions, I sat down at the phones myself. I was delighted that, although I had to direct many calls to other attorneys, I was able to substantively help an elderly widow who needed advice about a surcharge from her auto insurance company. I was also able to set up an appointment for one caller who had been waiting years for a decision on a benefit application to meet with the appropriate person at the Veteran's Administration. All of us there worked nonstop, and there was so much work to do, I never did get to thank most of the volunteers in person.

As a bar association, we put a tremendous amount of effort into lobbying for adequate court funding and adequate funding for legal services. This is an important part of our mission, because it is the foundation for ensuring access to justice for all. In an ideal world, we would have adequate court funding, so that our facilities were not cramped and rundown. In an ideal world, we would also have adequate funding for legal services, so that everyone who needed a lawyer for a basic human need (such as housing, family issues or benefits) would be entitled to one. Until that time, though, we have a responsibility to do what we can to ease the suffering of people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer but desperately need one in order to make justice a reality in their lives.

An important insight I've gained into the nature of reciprocity applies to pro bono work. Many times in life when we feel altruistic, we act by helping someone in hopes that it will benefit the other person. The almost universal effect is that the act of kindness or generosity is, in the end, a blessing to the giver as well as the recipient. The key reason for this, I believe, relates to the interconnectedness of all of us. By strengthening our commitment to pro bono, now and throughout the year, we are acting on the recognition that we are bound together through our shared humanity. As Herman Melville wrote, "We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us to our fellow men [and women.] and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects." By acting on that insight, we will help make the world a better place not only for the people we represent, but for ourselves as we are changed in the process.

(see story, page 16), which allows veterans to receive free legal advice in many areas of the law, including family law, trusts and estates, housing and government benefits, to name a few. Since I do not have any expertise in any of these areas, my purpose in attending was simply to thank the volunteer attorneys that night for their time. I knew that there would be 15 attorneys in a room answering phone calls, and I thought that I would have time to talk to them in between their calls. Wrong! From the moment the switchboard started putting calls through, there were countless calls stacked up waiting to be answered. The 15 attorneys worked nonstop, advising one person after another and making appropriate referrals from lists that were provided by the MBA. Officers from the Veteran's Administration were on hand to answer questions about benefits.¢