By: George “Buck” Lewis, Chair, ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service
Published in the Tennessee Bar Association Journal, Vol 55, No. 1, 12/30/18.
In the 2012 HBO series The Newsroom, we begin to get to know the main character, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, when we see him on a panel discussion on a college campus. In the first episode, a young woman from the business school asks the panel why America is the greatest country on earth? The other panelists say freedom, diversity and opportunity. After a pregnant pause, Will says he doesn’t believe America is the greatest country on earth. He embarks upon an abusive rant which cites illiteracy, low rankings for math and science, falling life expectancy, rising infant mortality, and incarceration per capita, to name a few. The rant lands Will in a good deal of trouble with the public and with his cable news network where he anchors the evening news.
A Chance Meeting
I was reminded of the episode recently when interviewing a client at a pro bono clinic. The woman was able of body and mind, had a college degree and a job but, nevertheless, was on the precipice of becoming homeless along with her children. She had a low level job for a city school system, but had recently become a teacher’s assistant and was on track to become a teacher in the fall of 2019.
When she became a teacher’s assistant, she began to be paid once a month instead of every two weeks. Her take-home pay was so low that after paying her rent and her utilities, she and her children needed to live off about $10 a day plus food stamps. The change in the cycles of her paychecks had caused her to be six days late on her rent and her apartment manager had immediately moved to eject her from the apartment, notwithstanding the fact that her children’s toilet, her dishwasher and her refrigerator never had worked. The apartment complex had not made these repairs despite many requests. To add insult to injury, she lost a voucher from the local housing authority to pay for one month’s rent because when the housing authority came to inspect the apartment on three occasions, her apartment failed inspection each time because of the problems with the toilet, the dishwasher, and the refrigerator.
Then something happened I have never experienced at one of these clinics. We were walking down the hall together and she pointed in the room two doors down from us and said, “I think that’s the lawyer who sued me to have me thrown out of my apartment.” I asked how she knew what he looked like and she explained that she had gotten behind on her rent once before and he had given her payment terms, which she complied with meticulously. We patiently waited until the apartment complex lawyer finished helping the pro bono client he was counseling. He recognized my client and agreed to sit with us and see if something could be worked out. When he learned what had happened, especially that she was about to be on the streets with her children and that the apartment complex had never fixed the toilet, the dishwasher or the refrigerator, I could see tears welling up in his eyes. Right then and there, at that clinic held in a church surrounded by a poor neighborhood on a cold Saturday morning, this chance meeting resulted in her being rescued from homelessness.
The Rules Are Clear: Give
The Preamble to our Rules of Professional Conduct makes absolutely clear that all lawyers are to give of their time, resources, and civic influence to insure that we all have equal access to justice.
Recently, a national ranking organization placed Tennessee second among 50 states when it comes to access to justice. A recent report issued by our Supreme Court indicates that about 50 percent of Tennessee lawyers do some pro bono. Of course, it is wonderful that Tennessee has come so far, but I find myself simultaneously proud and ashamed of that 50 percent number because that means that there are thousands of lawyers who do nothing. I just wish these lawyers could experience the joys of using their legal education and their experience to make a profound difference in someone’s life. I wish those lawyers could have their hearts warmed as we did that cold Saturday morning. I wish those lawyers could discuss their work with their children and bring their children to pro bono clinics, so they could experience firsthand how it feeds our souls.
I suspect that some members of our profession pass on pro bono because of a misguided judgment about why people have low household income. There are certainly better messengers than I to give you the statistics, but I can give you the result of four decades of life experiences. Some think that people are poor because they are lazy. My experience has been that this is mostly a myth. In fact, low income people often work harder than medium and high income people. Some think that people are poor because they have alcohol or drug problems. That is certainly true sometimes, but usually not. Some even think that some ethnic groups are not as smart or don’t take as much initiative as others. I have seen no evidence that this is true. In my experience, the main reasons that people have low incomes are that (1) they haven’t had an opportunity to get an education, and/or (2) some adverse life event related to their physical or mental health or family has had a profound negative impact on the course of their life
My mother’s family was very poor. Sometimes, they relied on my great-uncle’s grocery store leftovers to feed the family. I vividly remember my mother and my aunt talking about bringing their pillows, blankets, and sheets downstairs to warm by the fire before going to bed because the family could not afford to burn coal in the upstairs fireplace. I never realized when I was growing up that there was any difference between Mom’s family and Dad’s family. They were just as much fun to be around, just as hard working, and just as smart. With the benefit of hindsight, I still don’t see any difference in their skills and attributes, just the circumstances into which they were born.
The Future is Now
Technology has given us the opportunity to do a better job of pro bono and access to justice than we have ever done before. Here is my vision of what this might look like in the coming years.
In my vision, each state has an online portal its residents can access
In my vision, these portals have access to legal information and materials, toll free telephone lines, videos, legal aid and other direct providers, and on-line limited scope advice tools such as TN.FreeLegalAnswers.org.
In my vision, the public can access legal wellness check-upsand online dispute resolution through these portals.
In my vision, we use artificial intelligence to help direct clients to the best resource for them.
In my vision, lawyer volunteers have access to legal bots with artificial intelligence, which can read a natural language question and formulate a natural language answer, using a database of common law and statutory resources. The answers to the questions are reviewed and authorized by pro bono lawyers so some licensed lawyer is always responsible, but our pro bono volunteers have these resources at their fingertips, enabling them to give better advice to many more clients immensely more quickly.
In my vision, we use the data collected from many sources, including but not limited to FreeLegalAnswers, to predict which legal problems will afflict which citizens at which time of the year, month and week.We then push out legal information to those citizens in an effort to prevent legal problems before they even occur.
In my vision, when someone does an internet search for a lawyer, or for affordable housing, or for an abuse shelter, or for a homeless shelter, the next time they log on, they receive information regarding resources which relate to their problem. In my vision, we use the internet as a vast educational resource (such as the work done by Kahn Academy) to provide an education to all our citizens at a dramatically lower cost to society. Teachers can teach thousands of students at a time online, and the cost of brick and mortar buildings is avoided altogether.
I understand that some may see all this as quixotic, but all of this technology exists right now. We just have to muster the will to devote the resources to make these things happen on a large scale.
The Work of ‘Greater Fools’
Speaking of Don Quixote, Will’s hero in The Newsroom is his mentor and boss, Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterston, a self-described Don Quixote who wants to use the newscast to make television journalism what it was in the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. As for Will, he prefers the Camelot metaphor and is particularly fond of the scene in which King Arthur meets a young stowaway named Tom of Warwick. Of course, Arthur knights Tom and sends him back to England to pass on Camelot’s ideals to future generations.
In the closing scene of the first season of The Newsroom, Will is in his office and sees the same young student from the opening scene. Confronting her, he asks, “What are you of all people doing here?”
Using business school terminology, she says that she has watched Will and decided that she wants to be a “Greater Fool.”She wants to be a “foolish” idealistic young apostle, working to accomplish the goal of effectively informing our democratic electorate. Will then says, “Ask me the damn question again!” She sheepishly complies and asks again, “What makes America the greatest country on earth?” to which Will replies, “You do.”
From coast to coast, our profession is filled with patriotic, idealistic, big hearted “Greater Fools.” In fact, America was built on the work of “Greater Fools.” We need many more of them to join us in this struggle for equal access to justice. Now, more than ever, we have the capability to harness amazing technology in order to preserve age old American values. Don Quixote and King Arthur beckon us to the task.