The Old Man’s Words of Wisdom
By William G. Schwab
Are we becoming a nation of haves and have-nots? As legal professionals, do we have a duty to insure equal justice for all to prevent this?
These questions nagged me after a dinner with my 24-year-old daughter who works as the director of an after-school program in inner-city Philadelphia. She discussed that growing up in rural America was a lot like what she faces in North Philly. She saw how education funding sacrifices the potential of youth in both areas. She talked about how money decides opportunity for each. She talked about how great it was that I was able to supplement her “education” because I was a lawyer. She observed that today in America only suburbia and the affluent areas of cities regularly afford these benefits to children. Unfortunately, I see the same is evolving with our justice system.
At a recent ABA meeting, I got a sticker for contributing to the Fund for Equal Justice. I didn’t remember doing it, but it reinforced in me the have and have-nots concept is already effecting our justice system. I head the largest law firm in the county in which I practice. Most people would characterize me as successful and not one who “needs” a county position. Many wonder why I continue to be a part-time public defender. It’s simple. I taught my children and practice the idea of giving back to my community. We cannot just take and take.
The Public Defender’s Office in my county is staffed by hardworking and dedicated part-time lawyers who aren’t there just for the money. We have computers for the lawyers, because I donated used ones from my office. The county couldn’t afford it for the poor individuals we represent. We still operate with one phone for four lawyers. This, at times, makes things difficult. The four of us can only see one client at a time, because we don’t have private offices to maintain confidentiality—we are in one big room. Such is life in rural America. I represent the have-nots. The DA’s office has almost twice the number of lawyers and a support staff of five to our one. We have no investigator. Representation is what we put into it. None of looks at the clock. We spend the time needed on each case.
As lawyers in the making and new lawyers, try to remember as you develop your career plan why you went into law school. Most of us went because we wanted to change our society and do good. Money for most of us was secondary. Equal justice for all is not just a slogan. It should become a way of life. Yes, your career path may take you into a practice area where you think you cannot help out, but what about a legal clinic at night? What about taking court conflicts in criminal cases? As a bankruptcy specialist, I bring a unique approach to white collar crime cases that affords my clients a better defense.
It’s all about giving back. If we don’t, we truly will become a country of haves and have-nots, not just in our society, but also our legal system. America was not founded on the concept that the amount of money you have controls the justice system. Everyone is equal and presumed innocent under the law.