During my over three decades of working on the promotion and expansion of pro bono I have read hundreds of articles describing innovative pro bono projects and have talked with thousands of lawyers all over the country who are excited by the pro bono work they do. And I’ve attended dozens of ceremonies, award programs, receptions, luncheons and more where pro bono lawyers are recognized for their volunteer legal services commitment. The stories, individuals and events I enjoy the most are those where a deep sense of personal and professional pride pervades.
More and more I find myself appreciating what’s happening across the profession to engage senior lawyers with the opportunity to be pro bono heroes. One of those initiatives is the Access to Justice Fellows program in Massachusetts. This initiative affords senior lawyers and retired judges the opportunity to partner with non-profit organizations, legal services programs and the courts to provide essential legal assistance to underserved populations. The program was launched in 2012 with seven lawyers who had already retired or who were transitioning into retirement. Nineteen fellows were welcomed into the program during the 2016 induction program.
Fellows devote 10 to 20 hours per week on their projects, committing to work for one academic year. They meet as a group once a month to share their experiences, to meet with community leaders, and to discuss strategies for expanding the program.
The 2016-2017 Massachusetts Access to Justice Fellows are engaged in a wide range of projects. A retired judge is working on a range of veterans’ issues with the local Veteran Legal Services program. Another will be regularly answering questions on Massachusetts Legal Answers Online and serving as a mentor to other volunteers. A third will be helping to overcome barriers to the state’s administrative systems as experienced by low income and underserved members of the community.
More than 30 years ago, when I first started working in the pro bono field, the recently inducted Massachusetts Access to Justice Fellows were still building their careers. Yes, they might have been doing some pro bono work now and then but their time was spent primarily on serving their paying clients, growing their practices, and participating in local, state and national bar association activities. Today, the scope of the Fellows’ volunteer efforts and their commitment to spending some of their “retirement” to making a profound difference is truly impressive.
There’s a simplicity to the initiative premised on the idea that if you encourage senior attorneys to apply their skills and experience in support of access to justice they will step up to help. This is one of those programs that could easily be replicated in communities across the country. My hope is that 30 years from now today’s young lawyers will be lining up to dedicate some of their retirement to pro bono.
For more information about the Massachusetts ATJ Fellows Program visit their website at www.lawyersclearinghouse.org/access-to-justice-fellows or contact its director, Mia Friedman, at firstname.lastname@example.org.