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August 19, 2016 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair

The Profound Joy of Pro Bono

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

Pro bono lawyers are my heroes. It always warms my heart to listen to them talk about why they derive joy from doing pro bono work. These are my favorite reasons.

1. Some lawyers find pro bono a worthy use of their precious time.

Some lawyers have decided that they don't want billable hours to be their only legacy. In 2002, my Mom was diagnosed with colon cancer. Two months later, I was diagnosed with colon cancer as well. It focused us both on what we thought was a worthy use of our time. This reflection left me a little heartsick because I realized that I had wasted so much of my time. I did realize, however, that one of the most significant things that I had done was to volunteer at a pro bono clinic for HIV-positive clients in the heart of downtown Memphis. So, I believe some of us do this work because we find it worthy of our precious time, however much time that may be.

2. Their life experiences taught them to help those less privileged.

Other lawyers help those less fortunate because it is the way they were raised. There is an exercise that we do in the leadership class at the U.T. College of Law to teach students about privilege. We seat them alphabetically and give them a piece of paper. We tell them to wad it up. We put a trash can at the front of the room and we tell them, "If you can get your piece of paper in this trash can from your seat in the classroom, we'll give you extra credit." Of course, the students who happen to be seated in the front of the room think that is a pretty great deal. The students in the back cry "foul" because, through no fault of their own, it is a long shot that they will get any extra credit. My mom and her parents had seats in the back of the room. When my grandfather, a house painter, was sick or the weather was bad, he earned no money. They lived off the generosity of my mother's uncle, who had a grocery store and gave them the unpurchased produce and meat out of the back door on Saturday afternoons. I was raised to understand that most poor people work harder than most rich people. I was raised to understand that there are lots of extremely smart and charismatic poor people. I was raised to understand that it is our responsibility to take care of each other because sometimes all a family needs is a little help to get over a rough patch. So, some lawyers do pro bono because it is the way they were raised.

3. Many lawyers feel proud and lucky to be a lawyer.


Most of us have never looked at the Preamble of our rules of professional conduct. The Preamble says that a lawyer is a "public citizen, responsible for the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the profession." It says that "a lawyer should be mindful of the fact that the poor and sometimes persons who are not poor, cannot afford adequate legal assistance." Lawyers, therefore, should "devote professional time and civic influence" to the cause. Too many of us get lost in a sea of deadlines and mortgage payments, billable hours, and tuition costs. We forget about being a "public citizen with the obligation to devote professional time and civic influence on behalf of those who cannot afford legal assistance." But some lawyers remember.

4. Their faith traditions move them to pursue justice.

For many lawyers, pro bono is a matter of their faith traditions. Every faith tradition places an importance upon justice.

Exodus 23:6, "You shall not deny justice to the poor in their lawsuits." Deuteronomy 16:20, "Follow justice and justice alone."

Psalm 106:3, "Blessed are they that maintain justice, who constantly do what is right."

Psalm 140:12, "I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy." The Torah: "Justice, justice shall you pursue."

The Quran: "Behold, God enjoys justice and good actions and generosity to our fellows." "Never let hatred lead us into deviating from justice."

These lawyers believe God doesn't call the enabled, God enables the called. So, they respond to the call for legal help with the battle cry from the book of Isaiah, "Send me!"

5. Some lawyers simply love their fellow man.

Who are these people with legal problems who cannot afford a lawyer? They are our brothers and sisters.

Like my Grandfather, they paint our houses, fix our roofs, and clean our gutters. They work in the hotels where we stay. They serve us our food at our bar luncheons. And some of them struggle to make ends meet between their first and second or second and third tours of duty. Most of them are smart, not dull. Most of them are hardworking, not lazy. It's just that when privilege was given out, they were sitting at the back of the room. Some lawyers don't want their legacy to be that they looked the other way and worked only with others of education and privilege.


On a hill in Tennessee stands a bronze statue of a Torchbearer. Inscribed on the base of that statue are the words, "One that beareth the torch shadows oneself to give light to others." Pro bono lawyers are my heroes. They shadow themselves to give light to others. Most of you reading this article shadow yourselves to give light to others. In so doing, you are carrying out a tradition in this great country of ours that is over 200 years old. And, our great and noble profession will continue to honor this legacy 200 years from today, and 200 years after that, because the legacy of a pro bono hero never dies.