October 01, 2016 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair

By George (Buck) T. Lewis, Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

A Virtual Place at the Table

I hear expressions of anxiety everywhere I go. Conservative lawyers, liberal lawyers, non-lawyers, clergy, and elected officials all declaring how bewildered they are by the condition of the world in which we live. Terrorist attacks abroad and at home, violent acts committed by law enforcement officers and against law enforcement officers, and the acrimonious discourse of our public dialogue have left us all wondering if this old world of ours is coming unraveled.

I was reminded recently by my senior partner that the conditions in place at the time the United Nations was formed were as bad as or worse than they are now. In the midst of the near destruction of the world, representatives from Russia, the Middle East, China, Europe, and our own Eleanor Roosevelt drafted a document:  the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has stood the test of time.  If only the message of freedom, dignity, security, rule of law, and access to justice could once again become front and center in the hearts and minds of our leaders. See the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1988, Shirley Erena Murray penned the much-beloved Christian hymn "A Place at the Table." She based it upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She wrote in the final stanza:

For everyone, a place at the table to live without fear and simply to be,

to work to speak out, to witness and worship, For everyone born, the right to be free;

and God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace;

yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy!

 

 

As one of my access to justice heroes, Mary Ryan, wrote in her Dialogue column one year ago, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service has been diligently working the past 18 months to make the dream of a national pro bono website a reality. Important contributions have come from members of the committee, the staff of the committee, our technology team, ABA officers and senior staff members, the staff of the ABA Fund for Justice and Education, and countless access to justice advocates in state bars and other charitable organizations throughout our country and beyond.

Our national pro bono website ABAFreeLegalAnswers.org is now being born. We have rolled out sites in 19 states and we have 22 more states to go. When we have completed our roll-out, 41 states and three municipalities will have joined our family of jurisdictions. When low income clients have no place else to turn, they can go online and receive legal advice without charge from devoted lawyers performing their pro bono anywhere and anytime they can access the internet.

It has always seemed to me that it was inevitable that pro bono would be done online. What a joy it is to see online pro bono becoming a reality right now. The gap between the public's need and the resources available has never been larger, and the use of the internet and smartphones by low income families has never been more ubiquitous.

Of course, there is always more work to be done. We are still in discussion with a few remaining states and several municipalities, as well as jurisdictions in Canada, Great Britain, and the Virgin Islands. We continue to make enhancements to the site every month, and it is only logical that someday soon we will offer online dispute resolution and legal wellness checklists on our national pro bono website. I see a day coming very soon when online pro bono will become a routine and expected part of any multi-faceted access to justice toolkit.

 

Shirley Erena Murray's hymn celebrates "creators of justice, justice and joy." We can rightfully celebrate what we have created together - for just a little while - before we go right back to work serving the never ending needs of our clients.