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February 17, 2017 Dialogue

Pro Bono: From the Chair

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

Do Lawyers Matter?

“The purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, and to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Recently, friends have sent me scholarly articles on the issue of whether lawyers matter. That is to say, these articles discuss the issue of whether pro bono representation of clients really changes the lives of the clients for the better. I have yet to have the time (or perhaps the temperament) to review all this literature. But what I do have is thirty-six years of watching judges and lawyers do what they do best—work for the cause of justice. These are some of their stories.

Roberta worked for a copy service for six years. The copy service closed their doors and Roberta lost her paycheck. She found a job in seven weeks—pretty quick by today's standards—but she fell two months behind in her rent. When her landlord sued for possession, the judge sent the parties to a pro bono mediator who negotiated a twelve month renewal of the lease with the two back payments spread across those twelve months. The landlord got a longer lease and kept a good tenant. Roberta kept her home and avoided the expenses of moving. The court system had one less case on its docket.

Last year, a woman named Jean posted a question on our Tennessee pro bono website,, about what her rights were as a non-custodial parent. The question indicated her concern that her child was being left unsupervised and neglected. A lawyer in Memphis called the question to the attention of our site administrator in Nashville, Samantha Sanchez. Samantha got in touch with a family lawyer in the East Tennessee county where the child lived. It turned out that the child had not been bathed or fed in several days. The intervention of the volunteer who called it to Samantha's attention, Samantha's quick action, and the action of the pro bono family lawyer rescued that child from neglect.

Jonathan was married for thirty-nine years. His wife was always the major bread winner and she paid into the Social Security system for thirty-eight of those thirty-nine years. They had gotten married just over the Illinois state line by a preacher his wife knew in high school, however, the marriage license was recorded in the state of their residence. Since their marriage, they had adopted four children, each of whom had graduated from or was attending college. No one ever questioned the legitimacy of their marriage when they adopted their children or paid their taxes. But when the Social Security Administration reviewed Jonathan's application for Social Security benefits based upon his wife's earnings—by then his only source of income—benefits were denied because the state on their marriage license didn't match up with the state of its registration. Pro bono lawyers in one state persuaded Jonathan's mortgage bank to defer foreclosure until the Social Security problem could be solved. Those lawyers then engaged two other pro bono lawyers, one where the ceremony was performed and one where the license was filed. It took eight months to straighten out this quagmire, but Jonathan ultimately received his back benefits, kept the bank current, and kept his home. This kept him and his grandson off the streets, and there was one less foreclosure in his neighborhood and one less mortgage loan written off.

Adolfo and Deborah were an episodically homeless couple. Adolfo did his best to look after Deborah, who suffered from a mild form of mental illness. Adolfo worked construction. One night after work, he drank beer with some of his coworkers, drove his friend home in the friend's car and received a DUI. When he didn't appear for work the next day, he was replaced. When he was released from jail, he was put on probation and an order was entered requiring him to pay fees to a private probation company. He couldn't pay the fees, so he was jailed again and released to pay more fees, then jailed a third time and released to pay still more fees to the private probation company. This so-called "system" caused his one infraction with the law to balloon into a disaster for him and Deborah. Whenever he was incarcerated, she would be preyed upon. His multiple arrests made it that much more difficult for him to find construction work in the area where they lived. Pro bono lawyers represented him in a case in which the federal court held that the county's private probation system was an unlawful system of fines and fees, which deprived him of his constitutional rights. He used the money he received from the litigation to get back on his feet, and he and his former coworkers helped to build a Habitat for Humanity home to get him and Deborah off the streets for good. He now has a steady construction job.  The private probation company has left the state.

If you get six lawyers around a table, you can hear sixty different stories of how lawyers and judges exhibiting the best values of our profession have made profound differences in the lives of their individual clients and contributions to the health of their communities. Sometimes, there aren't even winners or losers—just happy endings all around. There are also, of course, stories of clients whose lawyers were unable to help them. But even the clients who could not be helped will often tell you that just having a lawyer to listen and to be their voice gave them hope. And then there are the stories of lawyers who were struggling with depression or burnout and were "saved" by the opportunity to help a pro bono client and to feel that they were using their education to validate the reason they went to law school to begin with and to make a new good friend.

So, you see, lawyers making a difference is not a hypothesis, or an academic issue, or a study subject for me. It is a working reality. It is a reality that makes me proud to be a citizen of the United States, proud to be part of an association whose motto "Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice" puts that mission front and center, and proud to be in a profession which—more than any other I know—serves the public in profound ways, large and small, sometimes with great notoriety and sometimes with none at all.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth tiny ripples of hope, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Robert F. Kennedy