Pro Bono Feature

Finding the Next Big Idea to Fight Poverty

We spent two days in Washington D.C. searching for the next big idea. Not a scientific breakthrough, not an entrepreneurial flashpoint and not a political platform. Rather, we were looking for that measure of justice needed to do something significant about the ravages of poverty.

One hundred lawyers - corporate, law firm, legal aid, government and judges - were invited by the American Bar Association to the inaugural National Pro Bono Summit to discuss ways to bridge the "justice gap," a short-hand reference for the reality that only about 20 percent of the legal needs of the poor are being met. That "gap" in providing services means that the poor, who have to interact with the justice system to ensure for themselves the basic necessities of life, are ending-up homeless, without medical care, and without hope - often for want of a lawyer.

The ABA broke us up into five working groups. In addition, the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association met with its own small "blue ribbon" committee of law firm pro bono professional attorneys, corporate general counsel, and both civil and criminal legal services lawyers, to examine effective public/private partnerships and explore how to expand and replicate those projects that are having an impact around the country. There was a lot of passionate and informed discussion in these various meeting rooms, and there was a lot of agreement on a lot of things. Perhaps that was the problem.

The most important undercurrent of the two days was a simple yet powerful set of beliefs: that lawyers can do more to combat poverty than can any other group of professionals; that the legal profession can open the doors of democracy to those most in need of its protections; that only the justice system can ensure the basics of life to those most in need; and that a representative judicial system will not happen without lawyers. Based on that premise, we agreed upon and built on a number of themes:

Pro bono involvement by the private bar leverages meager resources and right now, it is the best way to increase access to justice to supplement the overburdened staff legal aid network, such an expansion is needed by many in this nation to protect themselves and their families against injustices that often lead to homelessness, the disintegration of families, and imprisonment.

Professionalization of the pro bono legal services delivery system is critical to maximizing that leverage. Law firms, bar associations and legal aid offices alike must reset priorities and, even in times of fiscal crisis, hire skilled experienced attorneys to establish and manage pro bono programs. This will leverage the private bar and create the most efficient benefits possible.

Pro bono programs will be only as effective and help only as many clients as the size and strength of the country's legal aid providers will allow; pro bono volunteers need foundational support from legal aid offices, law school clinic programs, bar associations and criminal defenders. Without growing that supportive expert infrastructure, we will never be able to expand the relief that well-intentioned, skilled volunteers can provide. Effective partnerships between public sector organizations, the private bar and private industry are essential. When these partnerships are successful, they should cry out for efficient means of replication and expansion.

And last, the advantages of technology must be better tapped in order to bring more services to more people in more areas, both geographic and substantive.

What we keep hoping, however, is that the structure and dedication of this continuing commitment will yield a "big idea" - something we haven't yet considered. Not just notions around which we can agree, but something more, something around which we can debate, that will shake us up.

In their new book, "That Used To Be Us," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Johns Hopkins University professor Michael Mandlebaum remind us that America's greatness and ability to overcome, lead and inspire is built on creative thought and innovative approaches to big problems that can only be resolved with big ideas. Some of our country's greatest advances have arisen out of unique government policies that lead to and support new and risk-taking private actions.

For all of the good agreement that the National Pro Bono Summit produced, we can only hope that the foundation laid will support exactly that kind of new and innovative thought, the kind of bold ideas around which we can argue, compromise and build. As we move forward, we need to look to all those smart people in those meeting rooms to come up with just one big idea for a policy paradigm shift that will create an environment for real change.

Perhaps we can require lawyers to serve "residencies," as physicians do, but in inner city legal aid organizations. Maybe we can require a small (less than 1 percent) surcharge on escrow fees, or attorney fees, or filing fees, or junk food sales, or who knows what, that will bring in the billions needed to finally and monumentally expand the capacity of legal services to recruit, train and supervise enough members of the private bar to really make an impact on the justice gap. Maybe a tax credit for firms, and forgiveness of stifling loan obligations for students, in exchange for pro bono time expended. But chances are the searched-for transformative notion is something entirely different that will arise from a group of young, skilled, educated people, unshackled by us old folks and old ideas. American exceptionalism is out there.

Whatever the notion, wherever that exceptionalism arises from, we must find that "ah ha" policy idea around which we can fight and cajole and compromise. That big idea, whatever may evolve, is what we are looking for. It is what justice is looking for. Think about it. We put a man on the moon. We can do it.

David A. Lash is the managing counsel for Pro Bono and Public Interest Services at O'Melveny & Myers LLP.

The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.