Build Your Practice, Build Good Karma

Vol. 29 No. 1

By

Fred Rooney is director of the CUNY School of Law’s Community Legal Resource Network.

 

I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again. —Stephen Grellet, Quaker Missionary

 

In March 2010, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder appointed Professor Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School to head up the Department of Justice’s Access to Justice Initiative. Speaking at a National Institute of Justice conference on June 14, 2010, Professor Tribe concluded, “The truth is that as a nation, we face nothing short of a justice crisis. It is a crisis both acute and chronic, affecting not only the poor but also the middle class. The situation we face is unconscionable.” Tribe’s characterization of the American civil justice system is borne out in recently collected data that speaks to the deplorable state of affairs for millions of Americans with unmet legal needs.

According to a survey undertaken by the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, the United States is ranked the lowest among 11 developed nations when it comes to providing access to justice to its citizens—and is ranked lower than some third-world nations. Dan Froomkin, senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post, analyzed the Index and noted, “as part of the fact finding, the organization polled 1,000 people in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and found a significant gap between the rich and the poor in terms of their use and satisfaction with the civil courts system.” In its news release, the World Justice Project notes, “only 40% of low-income respondents who used the court system in the past three years reported that the process was fair, compared with 71% of wealthy respondents. This 31% gap between poor and rich litigants in the USA is the widest among all developed countries sampled. In France, the gap is only 5%, in South Korea it is 4% and in Spain it is nonexistent.”

In my home state, the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York reported the following in its November 2010 Report to the Chief Judge of the State of New York:

There is a growing crisis in the Courts of New York State. Each year, more than 2.3 million New Yorkers try to navigate the State’s complex civil justice system without a lawyer. The current statistics are staggering, to cite a few:
  • 99 percent of tenants are unrepresented in eviction cases in New York City, and 98 percent are unrepresented outside of the City.
  • 99 percent of borrowers are unrepresented in hundreds of thousands of consumer credit cases filed each year in New York City.
  • 97 percent of parents are unrepresented in child support matters in New York City, and 95 percent are unrepresented in the rest of the State; and
  • 44 percent of home owners are unrepresented in foreclosure cases throughout our State.
. . .
Seventy percent of civil matters in New York State courts involve family law, consumer credit, landlord-tenant and foreclosure cases. Our courtrooms often are standing room only, with frightened, unrepresented litigants who face the loss of a home, a job, and even a child. Judges report that many valid claims are lost, because the unrepresented often do not present evidence or understand the law.

On August 9, 2010, at the American Bar Association’s 2010 Annual Meeting in San Francisco, California, Professor Tribe addressed the issue of Legal Services Corporation funding by stating:

The problems we face are not episodic, they’re systemic. Over half of those who qualify for and seek assistance from the 137 principal federally funded legal assistance programs must be turned away because the level of available funding is so low. Many of them have no other option, they simply become more vulnerable to injustice because they’re poor. . . . When only the wealthiest among us have their legal needs met justice remains an unrealized ideal.

When justice is less than equal and generally unavailable, it compromises the integrity of democratic societies and the promises they make to their citizenry. So what exactly can be done to breath renewed integrity into American democracy as fewer members of American society reap the fruits of a society premised on the principles of “liberty and justice for all?” Pro bono services for our society’s most vulnerable can be a beginning. Why? Because pro bono furthers the ideals espoused by most religions and humanistic philosophies.

And it’s good for business.

That last point is not to be taken lightly. It is one of the central messages of the Community Legal Resource Network (CLRN) at CUNY School of Law, of which I am the director. The CLRN was created in 1998 specifically to address the access-to-justice crisis in American by better training new lawyers starting solo or small firm practices. Through the years, the CLRN has repeatedly made this point to its members: Pro bono makes good business sense.

In 1988, a colleague Michele Varricchio and I established a small firm in Allentown, Pennsylvania. With virtually no capital to advertise, we relied heavily on the area’s ever-growing Latino community to develop a client base; Spanish is my second language and there were few Spanish-speaking attorneys in the area. What we knew from the onset of our practice was that Latinos had the lowest per capita income in the Lehigh Valley and the greatest percentage of unmet legal needs. Almost immediately we were faced with the dilemma of how to effectively serve clients with little or no income and still make enough to cover our expanding overhead. Back then, the idea of “doing well” and “doing good” seemed to be mutually exclusive.

What we quickly came to realize was that our pro bono and low bono clients eventually became a key to our ultimate success. For example, Gloria Santiago (name changed) frantically arrived in our office after her elderly mother suffered a debilitating stoke. Overnight it became imperative for Gloria to secure the guardianship of her mother in order to better care for her personal and financial needs. What Gloria lacked were the funds to pay our modest retainer. Michele and I were faced with the dilemma of either turning Gloria away or biting the bullet and waiving our fees. Ultimately, Gloria paid court costs, and we successfully represented her in the guardianship proceedings. Both mother and daughter were deeply grateful for our assistance. We did what our hearts told us to do, never realizing that a year later, Gloria would return to our office with a neighbor who suffered injuries in an auto accident. Fees derived from the case enabled us to pay our bills, pay ourselves, and even put a small amount into our rainy-day account. Gloria made it clear that we were her “family lawyers” and that she would be sure to refer additional friends and family to our office.

Through the years, there were many clients like Gloria who came to us at a time of need and were not turned away simply because they couldn’t pay the full retainer. On those occasions when we agreed to slide our fees or waive them entirely, our decisions have resulted in triple-fold blessings derived from grateful clients who refer us clients with unmet legal needs.

Our experience is hardly unique. Yogendra (Yogi) Patel operates a law practice in New York and Connecticut. When asked about the value of including pro bono services in his newly established practice, Patel explained:

When I launched my law practice earlier this year, I made the decision to take on one pro bono case at a time and decided that I would give preference to individuals in deportation proceedings. My decision to represent individuals in removal proceedings on a pro bono basis was driven primarily by my own personal experience as an immigrant. It is this experience that drove me to law school in the first place. Five years after graduating law school, I am finally using my law license and skills to help a segment of society that is often overlooked—a segment of society that I was a part of for the majority of my life in this country. I still vividly recall the anxiety and sleepless nights caused by my own immigration issues. For me, the ability to use my license to help is a moral obligation. I get out of it much more than I give. From a professional development view, I knew that my experience in removal defense work was limited as a practicing attorney. In fact, I had none. I therefore reached out to mentors to help me better represent my clients. I partnered up with Cardoza [School of Law’s] and NYU’s immigration law clinics. With their guidance and support, I feel confident that my pro bono representation is more than just adequate. The experience I have gained and continue to gain from my pro bono practice has enabled me to now expand my practice areas to include immigration law. As a brand-new solo practitioner, the ability to expand my practice area is integral to my firm’s survival in this economic climate.

Heidi Henle, a highly respected member of CLRN for more than a decade, has a thriving practice in Bayside, New York. She, too, understands and appreciates the value of pro bono in her practice. According to Henle:

By providing pro bono service, I’ve come in contact with people whom I would not normally meet during my regular day-to-day practice. I’ve been able to help them with some very basic information and with answers to questions such as, “My relative has died, what do I do? Do I need to go to court?” Many people just don’t know where to begin or with whom to speak to solve a legal issue. A starting point always helps to alleviate their stress. Any guidance tends to be appreciated and is usually carried forward with referrals to other paying clients. I am thankful for the blessings I have had in my life that have gotten me to where I am today, and I believe that giving back when I can is an important part of my legal practice.

As author Leo Buscaglia notes in his 1972 book Love, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Pro bono allows lawyers to do all that, and more.

 

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