August 02, 2015

Sen. Durbin urges pro bono work, new approaches to closing justice gap

On Aug. 1 at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. shed light on the problem of access to justice in America and challenged members of the legal profession to contribute more to improving the delivery of legal services in the United States.

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin addresses the 2015 ABA Pro Bono Publico Awards luncheon

More than 60 million Americans qualify for civil legal assistance, but about half of those who seek help from legal aid providers are turned away because the resources can’t meet the demand.

“It’s no secret that our country is facing a ‘justice gap.’” Durbin said. “We are falling far short in ensuring fair and effective access for all Americans to our system of justice.”

Watch profile videos of Pro Bono Publico Award recipients:

Durbin provided his remarks as part of his keynote address at the 2015 ABA Pro Bono Publico Awards luncheon, where he recognized the exemplary volunteer contributions of New York lawyer Daniel L. Brown of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP; Maine lawyer Leslie S. Silverstein; Baylor University School of Law; Jones Day; and the United Airlines Legal Department.

“I particularly want to commend this year’s honorees for their work helping those who are often in greatest need: refugees fleeing from violence… persons with disabilities… undocumented DREAMers who are seeking a chance to contribute to this country through the DACA [Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals] program.”

In addition, two national organizations received special pro bono awards for their contributions in expanding pro bono legal services: The Association of Pro Bono Counsel, which supports the professional development of law firm pro bono managers, and the National Association of Pro Bono Professionals, which provides training and support to the directors of bar association, legal services and independent pro bono programs nationwide.

While highlighting the importance of providing legal services, Durbin also took the occasion to lay out three calls to action: He urged lawyers to provide more pro bono work, to champion funding of legal services and to take innovative approaches in meeting the demand for affordable legal services.

“First, keep up the pro bono work. It matters,” Durbin said “I don’t need to tell you, but it can make a life-changing difference.”

Durbin, who sits on the U.S. Senate Judiciary, Appropriations and Rules Committees, emphasized the importance of pro bono experience for those seeking a federal judgeship, saying that nominees are typically questioned about their experience in serving the disadvantaged.  “If you do good by performing pro bono work, it can do well for your judicial prospects.”

Durbin spoke about the need to support funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which provides for about a quarter of all civil legal aid in the nation.

“I know that many law firms are generous with charitable contributions, and so are their attorneys and foundations.  I urge the firms represented here to consider making legal aid providers a key part of that charitable giving. A small percentage increase in these donations can go a long way,” said Durbin. 

Durbin, also asked lawyers to “think outside of the box” when it comes to closing the civil justice gap. He highlighted two examples:  The Chicago Bar Foundation's Justice Entrepreneurs Project, an “incubator” program to help young attorneys start law practices to serve people of moderate incomes; and the Georgetown University Law Center's partnership with two D.C. Law firms, which established a non-profit “low bono” law firm for recent graduates.

“We need new innovation and energy to tackle the justice gap. We can’t stay on the same track. There is so much that the attorneys in this room can do to help make real progress in this effort, and I challenge you to make this a priority,” said Durbin.

The 2015 ABA Pro Bono Publico Awards are sponsored by the Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service.