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Advancing Pro Bono through Access to Justice Commissions
Access to Justice Commissions are spearheading creative, and replicable, initiatives to engage all segments of the private bar in pro bono work that rewards lawyers while narrowing the justice gap.
Pro bono is a critical component in the legal aid infrastructure. Under–resourced civil legal aid organizations, still reeling from significant drop–offs in federal funding and Interest on Lawyers Trust Account (IOLTA) revenues, rely on the private bar to supplement their work. Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, which funds the city's legal aid providers, offers, "Pro bono is an integral part of a comprehensive strategy to make our nation's promise of equal access to justice a reality. While it's no panacea by itself, the private bar can marshal tremendous resources and is a major partner in trying to narrow the justice gap. We encourage all of our grantee legal aid organizations to develop strong relationships with pro bono contributors from throughout the legal community." Indeed, more can always be done to encourage even more lawyers to perform pro bono work. But the sheer number and value of hours provided has been a huge boon to the legal aid community.
Meanwhile, Access to Justice Commissions (ATJCs) are state–based, blue–ribbon panels — composed of high–level leaders in the profession – which act on several fronts to improve the delivery of legal services to those on the socioeconomic margins.1 The ATJC concept is spreading rapidly. The first ATJC was founded in Washington State in 1994. Now, there are ATJCs in 27 states and in the District of Columbia, with 25 ATJCs having been founded since 2000.2 With 12 more states now using ABA–administered grant funding to explore the creation of an ATJC, there will likely be over 30 ATJCs within a year.3
ATJCs have had successes on numerous fronts in strengthening the legal–aid infrastructure and promoting equal justice. One of the foremost areas of success comes in the work of ATJCs to support pro bono. The reason for this is twofold. First, by dint of their membership and their close tethers to state high courts, ATJCs possess the clout to not only build awareness of ATJ issues but to facilitate concrete change. In Tennessee, for example, the high court has embraced the ATJC and its mission, and has appointed Justice Janice M. Holder as the Liaison to the ATJC. ATJC Chair George "Buck" T. Lewis says, "What has happened in Tennessee in the last five years demonstrates what is possible when the entire Supreme Court makes access to justice the number one priority."
Second, ATJCs sit at the center of many segments of our profession — the bench, the private bar, the organized (i.e. state and local) bars, as well as the legal aid and law school communities. Thus ATJCs bring these actors together around the issue of effectively delivering services to poor people. ATJCs foster dialogue about what the judges see as priorities in the courthouse, what the private bar needs to get engaged in pro bono, and where the legal aid organizations can lend their deep expertise to boost pro bono efficiency. Once needs are identified and plans formulated, ATJCs act. ATJCs are truly unique entities in representing all these interests and channeling them toward the goal of equal access to justice.
Let's take a closer look at just a few (replicable) examples of how ATJCs support pro bono:
Illinois: Practice Rule Amendments
It may not be the most glamorous approach to promoting access to justice, but small practice rule changes have allowed scores of lawyers to more meaningfully engage in pro bono. The Illinois Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission has been active in facilitating several recent state practice rule changes which allow for more pro bono participation. For instance, in April Supreme Court Rule 756(j) was amended to allow out–of–state attorneys to perform pro bono in Illinois as long as the attorneys are in good standing out of state. At the same time, the court amended a limited–practice rule for corporate counsel that will have the effect of allowing corporate lawyers with out–of–state licenses to perform pro bono in Illinois.4
Maine: Creative Community Engagement
The Justice Action Group, which functions as the formal ATJC in Maine, launched its "Lawyers in Libraries" this past May. On May 1, dozens of lawyers delivered presentations and offered brief counsel to attendees in 40 libraries throughout the state. Lawyers in Libraries and its pro bono volunteer force will facilitate similar programs in the future. The overarching goal, of course, is to proactively reach out to communities and individuals who will benefit from this exposure to legal resources.
Massachusetts: Building New Volunteer CommunitiesThe Massachusetts ATJC launched a Pro Bono Fellowship program in September, 2012, the goal of which is to involve retired (or retiring) attorneys in the delivery of legal services: "[The] program is structured by pairing Fellows with a legal services provider or non–profit organization of their choice. The [ATJC] Fellows Working Group will meet with each Fellow to design a project together with the provider or non–profit. The non–profit will provide training and support while law firms will provide resources, such as administrative support and office space. Each Fellow is expected to devote between 10 to 20 hours per week to individual pro bono projects. In addition, the Fellows will also meet once a month with community leaders, legal services providers, and public interest organizations, among others..."5
The program's first class included seven fellows; next year's class will nearly double, to 13 fellows. Susan Finegan, ATJC member and Chair of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's Standing Committee on Pro Bono, is optimistic about the program's impact: "[T]he Fellows have provided vital legal needs by establishing lawyer–for–the–day programs in various courts, working with nonprofits on corporate governance, representing indigent clients in guardianship cases, and tackling issues involving bankruptcy, immigration law, land conservation, and community agriculture. Our long–term goal is to seek a culture shift in Massachusetts whereby all retiring lawyers will consider participating in the Fellows program, making a real difference for low income [clients]."
Tennessee: Empowering New Pro Bono Actors
The Tennessee Faith & Justice Alliance (TFJA), launched this past February, began with the recognition that many people who run into problems seek assistance first in their churches and faith communities before going to legal/social services providers. This is often so because those seeking help are unable to define the specific nature of their problems and may not know of the resources available to support them. Thus the Alliance is assisting congregations throughout the state in building an infrastructure to identify and help those with legal needs. The Alliance's pilot project was launched in partnership with the United Methodist Church (UMC). The UMC established a network of volunteer attorneys from within its own congregation to provide assistance to those in need. The goal is to grow the TFJA within other faith communities and to promote flexibility so that new projects can best accommodate their own needs.
Washington, DC: Recognizing Volunteer ContributionsThe D.C. ATJC and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program were key partners in launching the Capital Pro Bono Honor Roll, a program through which the D.C. Court of Appeals and the Superior Court of D.C. recognize "attorneys who provide at least 50 or more hours of pro bono services (or 100 or more hours of service for a higher recognition category) per year." Legal Services Corporation President James Sandman, said of the program: "The Honor Roll includes lawyers at all levels of experience, from our newest to our most senior attorneys, and in a wide variety of practice settings, from solo and small firm practice, to government lawyers, to big firm practitioners. The breadth of pro bono involvement is powerful evidence of the strong pro bono culture of DC's legal community."6
Conclusion: ATJCs as Hubs for Building Pro Bono
Justice Holder in Tennessee observes, "Access to Justice Commissions can become the public face of access to justice efforts statewide, attracting more members of the private bar by creating a community or culture for access to justice efforts." And as exemplified above, ATJCs go beyond attracting and educating the private bar. ATJCs can drive pro bono innovation and build the pro bono volunteer base through advocacy on any number of fronts — from encouraging practice–rule flexibility, to engaging partners outside the legal community, to harnessing the expertise of what will be a large cadre of lawyers moving into retirement. As new ATJCs emerge in some states and existing ATJCs grow more sophisticated in others, they will comprise a national network to create and share new ideas and to engage even more pro bono advocates in the hard but rewarding work of achieving equal justice.