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October 23, 2013 Articles

Book Review: Gospel Justice

A successful lawyer gives up everything to fight for access to justice.

By Jonathan J. Tofilon

Bruce D. Strom
Gospel Justice: Joining Together to Provide Help & Hope for Those Oppressed by Legal Injustice
Moody Publishers

In his new book, Gospel Justice, Bruce Strom seeks to explain why a successful attorney would abandon his law practice to provide access to justice for the poor, and, in the process, join the ranks of the poor himself. “I was poor and I felt poor” he writes, as overnight Strom went from the top of the legal world as a highly sought attorney to what he perceived to be the bottom as an invisible poverty lawyer. Throughout his book, Strom is coming to terms with this life-changing decision, dispelling his own doubts, and lamenting his own misgivings about the poor as he recounts the defining experiences that jolted him out of apathy. Today, as a lawyer who has spent countless hours investing in the poor and wrestling with the thieves and complex systems that oppress them, Strom’s own experiences are more than able to perform the book’s heavy lifting. The pages of Gospel Justice are overflowing with compelling and eye-opening accounts of how lawyers can increase justice by spending themselves on behalf of the poor.

The meaning of the phrase “gospel justice” is fleshed out throughout the book and serves as the book's ethical imperative. One of the most well-known and influential parables of Jesus, the Good Samaritan, provides both the ethical starting point and a structure for the book's chapters, as each of the parable’s characters are examined in turn. Even to those familiar with the parable, Strom’s exposition feels surprisingly appropriate, as he explains that the parable itself is an answer to the questioning of a lawyer regarding the scope of the lawyer’s duty to his fellow man. Similar to a modern-day law professor, the teacher does not respond to the lawyer’s questioning with black-letter law. Instead, the response is a story that challenges all of the lawyer’s assumptions.

Although the parable of the Good Samaritan is often touted as an aspirational example of compassion, Strom compellingly argues that this parable has a lot to teach about justice. After all, the injured man lying on the side of the road who is eventually helped by the Good Samaritan is not merely the victim of apathy or unfortunate circumstance; rather, the injured man is the victim of injustice. He has been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. In this light, Strom explains that those who refused to help the injured man are not simply failing to show compassion, they are ignoring injustice. And strikingly, the individuals in the parable who refuse to come to the aid of the injured man were uniquely qualified to do so, as they represented the legal and moral authorities of that day. Similarly, for us as attorneys, ignoring injustice not only violates our professional code of ethics, it has serious implications for our society.

Of the “injured man” in America, Strom writes “[i]n this country if you commit a crime, you can get an attorney. If you commit fraud, abuse, or illegal practices, you are entitled to a free lawyer. But if you are the victim of such oppression, you must fend for yourself.” For the one in six people in America who live at or below the federal poverty level, the cost of a private attorney is simply out of reach. At the same time, 4,300 people are turned away from legal services every day in the United States, simply because there isn’t enough help available. And many more don’t even realize there may be a legal solution to the problem they are facing. Unfortunately, the problem of ignoring the injured man has become a national crisis, as Strom relates that, according to a study done in 2010, the United States ranked last in the developed world for providing access to justice.

Strom’s writing may be most engaging when he shares his own journey to embracing the injured man in America as the “neighbor” whom he is called to love. “I believed the poor were that way by their bad decisions,” he writes. “If only they worked harder, they could succeed . . . I had no idea that in a three-year span, nearly 32 percent of people in our country experienced at least two months of poverty. . . . I did not see the reality that most of the poor are poor not by choice, but because of circumstances—like being an innocent child of a single parent.” Strom goes on to systematically deconstruct many preconceived notions about poverty and the poor. “Statistically” Strom writes, “the injured man in America isn’t a man or a minority, but a white single mom with a child under age six.” Furthermore, “while children make up 25 percent of the total population, they represent more than 35 percent of the people in poverty.”

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the robbers who injured the man are never mentioned in the story. Strom explains that the presence of the robbers on the Jericho Road where the story takes place was not surprising, as the Jericho Road was notorious for its danger. In contrast, those who seek to oppress the poor in twenty-first-century America are far less visible. Through client testimonials, however, Strom shines a light on heartbreaking stories of robbers—some brazen and others more subtle—preying on the poor and the uneducated. In Chicago, where payday lenders outnumber McDonald's restaurants almost two to one, Strom writes of the 700 percent interest rates and fraudulent tax advice that trap the clientele of these establishments in poverty. Strom writes of low-income parents losing their children due to false accusations or trivial reasons, without any resources to hire an attorney. Strom also writes of a wide-sweeping epidemic of abuse, as an estimated one in four women are victims of domestic violence, and in households making less than $15,000 a year, this number is higher than 35 percent.

Strom argues compellingly that many of us are unable to see the injustice around us simply because we avoid traveling the “Jericho Road.” The Jericho Road where the parable takes place was a “steep, winding path climbing nearly 3,000 feet over the seventeen miles connecting Jericho to Jerusalem.” It was known as the “Way of Blood” because of the blood that was so often shed there by robbers. “Today the Jericho Road takes many forms,” Strom explains. “It is the seventeen-floor tenement building filled with single parents” or “the seventeen rooms in a nursing home under investigation for exploitation and elder abuse” or the “seventeen blocks encompassing a minority neighborhood torn apart by gangs and violence.” In the same breath, however, Strom barrages his readers with amazing stories of attorneys who are traveling these roads, coming alongside the injured, and effecting real change.

As Strom himself began to see the needs all around him, he realized that “many of the circumstances causing poverty involve legal issues: from abandonment and divorce to unfair contracts, unfair loans, unfair wages, fraud, abuse, and deceptive practices. I knew that in our country, justice can be obtained only through the law. And the law can be accessed only through a lawyer.” Ultimately, it was this realization that pushed Strom to begin traveling the Jericho Road and to open a pro bono law firm to begin caring for the injured. As a result, Strom is able to recount story after story of how lawyers who have chosen to walk the Jericho Road have made powerful impacts in the lives of injured travelers.

“The Jericho Road is real,” Strom writes, and the remedy is not mere “charity” but true justice. Namely, justice that “seeks to educate, empower, and root out structures that contribute toward injustice.” In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”

Keywords: litigation, access to justice, Gospel Justice, Bruce Strom, pro bono service, pro bono legal aid, Good Samaritan, ethics of pro bono service, Jericho Road

Jonathan J. Tofilon is an associate attorney with Grotefeld, Hoffmann, Schleiter, Gordon & Ochoa, LLP, in Geneva, Illinois. He is an assistant editor for the Case and Legislative Updates Section of the Access to Justice Committee newsletter.

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