Former New York Appeals Court Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, an access to justice champion, celebrated with lawyers who have been committed to pro bono work and challenged others of the legal profession in his keynote address to do more because it’s not only an ethical and moral obligation, but it’s “what being a lawyer is all about.”
During a luncheon at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in New York, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service presented five awards to individual lawyers and institutions in the legal profession that have demonstrated outstanding commitment to volunteer legal services for the poor and disadvantaged.
Lippman, who has been involved in innovative reforms of the judiciary and the legal profession and has been committed to expanding pro bono legal services, said there is no issue more important to the justice system.
“Celebrating pro bono and the pursuit of access to justice is fundamental to the justice system and solving the societal problems that come to the doorsteps of the justice system,” Lippman said. “Courts are the emergency room for society’s ailments and we must be responsive to the pressing personal societal problems when people come to the courts seeking justice.”
Lippman said there is a justice gap between the “finite legal resources available” and the “desperate need for legal resources” to help the poor and those of honest means.
It is a gap that the 2017 recipients of the Pro Bono Publico Awards tried to fill. Lippman praised and admired the exemplary volunteer contributions of the Justice Index Team (affiliated with the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham University School of Law in New York); Erin J. Law of the Morgan Stanley Legal and Compliance Division in New York; the Orrick law firm; Debra Marie Pistorino Parrish of the Parrish Law Firm in Pittsburgh, Pa.; and William A. Waddell, Jr., of Friday, Eldredge & Clark in Little Rock, Ark.
Profile videos featuring each recipient’s work was highlighted at the luncheon.
Lippman emphasized the need to support funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which provides civil legal aid to those who need it.
“The poor and people of honest means are literally falling off the plate, fighting for the necessities of life, the roof over their heads, their physical safety, their livelihoods, the well-being of their families because they cannot afford legal representation,” Lippman said.
He added that, “LSC is under attack. We see it each and every day. The poverty rate in this country stands at 20 percent. There is a crisis in access to justice we must address.”
Lippman said his work has not been about him being an “activist judge,” but more about being “proactive in the pursuit of justice.”
New York, he said, has created an Access to Justice Commission that holds public hearings around the state. They have approached the justice gap in two ways: through the public funding of legal services and through pro bono work.
“The judiciary must be at the center of this effort,” he stressed. “And that’s why we put money in the judiciary budget for legal services. It’s essential to our constitutional mission, which is to foster equal justice.”
Lippman said in New York they obtained $100 million in the judicial budget to make legal service grants, which ultimately saves on incarceration and social services costs on the other end of the spectrum.”
“There isn’t enough money in the world to fund the need. This is the tip of the iceberg. What we need to do to compliment this is the voluntary pro bono efforts of the bar; this is a core value of our profession, this is what we do — we help others, we serve others. This is what being a lawyer is all about,” Lippman said.
Lippman also encouraged lawyers to think innovatively in getting involved in pro bono work.
He shared that New York has reached out to untapped areas of the legal profession to get more people involved in pro bono work: they work with baby boomers who are slowing down in their profession and encourage them to take up the cause, they have reached out to corporate counsel who are not admitted to the bar in New York and they have made it a rule that new lawyers must do 50 hours of pro bono work before they are admitted to the bar. There is also mandatory pro bono reporting in the state of New York to gauge progress.
“Whether by public policy, whether by statue, whether by constitutional change, we’re getting there. We absolutely are,” Lippman said with a sense of optimism. “But none of this will happen unless we recognize the importance of pro bono efforts to getting us to the promise land.”
He said by honoring lawyers who are doing pro bono work and extending and creating opportunity at every level of the bar will help achieve justice.
“We have a monopoly on the practice of law. We cannot use that exclusive privilege to merely enrich ourselves without recognizing the moral and ethical obligation that we have to help the most vulnerable in society that need legal assistance,” he said.
It is at the heart of the legal tradition to work for the public good, Lippman said.
“This is what we do as lawyers, this is what drives us, this is what makes lawyering a public service. This is what being a lawyer is all about. We have to avoid narrow and parochial concerns and each and every day aspire to the highest code of our profession that tells us that helping others, that making a better world, that making a society that we all can be proud of is very much our mission each and every day.”
Watch profile videos of Pro Bono Publico Award recipients:
·Justice Index Team, which focuses on assessing state justice systems and their efforts to assure access to justice for vulnerable people. The Justice Index — developed by a team of 13 partnering institutions including law firms, corporate law departments and law schools — is an interactive website that uses data, findings, indicators and indexing to rank the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., on their adoption of selected best policies for assuring access to justice. The hope is that by promoting self-analysis and making the adoption of best policies highly visible, the index promotes positive change.
·Erin J. Law, who joined Morgan Stanley as an in-house lawyer, recognized that while the financial firm had a long-standing core value of “giving back” and a history of community service, it had no pro bono legal program. An experienced pro bono attorney in her previous work, Law launched a pro bono program at Morgan Stanley with the encouragement and support of the legal department’s leadership. The program includes a wide range of pro bono opportunities for the department’s lawyers.
·Orrick, which considers pro bono work as one of the most important ways to measure its professional success, counted 92,000 pro bono hours for its attorneys in 2016. Among its many pro bono accomplishments, Orrick has helped immigrants secure basic constitutional protections, used innovative financial vehicles to boost nonprofits, provided critical legal help to stop climate change and represented veterans in their quest to obtain benefits and legal rights from the military.
·Debra Marie Pistorino Parrish, whose small law firm provides legal services in the specialized areas of medicine and science, focuses, among other areas, on advocating with Medicare and private insurance companies to pay for specific technologies and treatments through various legal and administrative channels. Consistent with her commitment to take on at least one new pro bono matter each year, Parrish represented a series of Medicare beneficiaries with Type 1 diabetes so profound that their doctors had prescribed a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to enable them to control and manage their conditions. Medicare denied coverage stating the device was simply precautionary. She eventually persuaded Medicare to provide at least limited coverage for CGMs.
·William A. Waddell, a partner with one of Arkansas’ largest law firms, is considered one of the state’s leading supporters of access to justice. An experienced pro bono attorney, he is involved in a medical-legal partnership at the Mid-Delta Health Clinic in Clarendon, Ark. The clinic operates on a sliding fee scale and provides medical and dental services, as well as a host of other services, including legal aid. Waddell spends two full days a month meeting with clients, assisting them with a wide range of legal problems.