Pro Bono Month and the Work of the Private Bar

“Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.” – The American Bar Association

 

October is Pro Bono Month at the BBA and across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – a time for us to recognize and celebrate meaningful pro bono contributions to the legal community and learn more about how else we as attorneys can make a positive difference.

With the pending release of the report from the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, this month takes on a deeper meaning.  Let me share one figure from the Task Force’s report with you: the estimated market value of time donated by attorneys through pro bono work with just four Boston-area legal services providers in 2013 was $17.6 million, representing the value of over 82,000 hours contributed.

This is a staggering number, and all the people behind that number deserve our wholehearted respect and applause.  In Massachusetts, lawyers are expected by the Board of Bar Overseers to donate at least 25 hours per year of their time to pro bono legal services – and many attorneys go above and beyond this.  You may recall Law Day Dinner this past year, when Mayor Marty Walsh asked the crowd of 1,300 attorneys and other representatives from the legal community how many would be involved in a pro bono project in the coming year; almost everybody raised their hands.  As Mayor Walsh succinctly put it, “Boston’s legal community has an established tradition – and an active culture – of pro bono legal work.”

Many others show their commitment to the cause by answering the call to donate 1% of their incomes to legal aid and similar causes.  Those who pledge to the Boston Bar Foundation, for example, are supporting both legal services organizations and pro bono initiatives, since the Foundation provides grants to legal services and community organizations as well as funding for pro bono initiatives of the Association.

Even as we celebrate and laud the generous donations of time and resources made by members of the private bar, we must be aware that their contributions alone can never meet the entire need.  Pro bono work by the private bar provides crucial support to legal services organizations, and, judging by the numbers, attorneys are actively engaged in this area.  Yet, with the rising number of income-qualifying individuals that legal services organizations are forced to turn away every year, there is no way the private bar alone can entirely bridge the gap between those who need legal aid and those who receive it.

In short, there is still much more work to be done.  This is why we are looking forward to the full report of the Task Force to recommend steps not only to fund legal services organizations, but to create more opportunities for the private bar to help address the unmet need.  The Legislature has been instrumental in this effort thus far.  We appreciate their support of this cause and look forward to continuing to partner with them in the future as we work to secure legal assistance for all who need it.

If you want to get more involved in pro bono work, there are numerous ways to do so.  The website at www.massprobono.org is a great resource for finding pro bono opportunities across the state.  Many cases require special training, which is why the BBA partners with community legal services organizations every year to create a full slate of pro bono events and training sessions every October.  You can find that calendar here.

I would urge you to consider getting involved, or, if you are involved already, increasing that involvement and encouraging other attorneys to join you in taking pro bono cases and volunteering time and expertise.  There is still much work to be done.  I am confident that if we continue to give as generously as we have in the past, if we continue to show our commitment to advancing access to justice, and if we continue to work alongside our partners across the legal community and in the government to implement the Task Force’s forthcoming recommendations, we will make even greater strides in meeting the need for legal assistance in our state.

Supporting Our Judiciary

One of the most rewarding aspects of serving as BBA President is that I have the privilege to meet with the Chief Justices of our state and federal courts in Massachusetts to discuss matters of interest to the bench and the bar. It is a rare opportunity to talk on a one-on-one basis about how we may work together in the coming year, and one that I have been very much looking forward to. This week, I’ve had the honor of speaking with Chief Justice Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence of the Massachusetts Trial Court, Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez of the Probate & Family Court, and Chief Justice Steven Pierce of the Housing Court, with more meetings to come throughout the fall.

As you know, supporting increased funding for the judiciary has always been a major priority of the BBA, and it is one that I fully intend to advance in my year as President. We have talked about the cause a great deal, but we don’t always go into the background details about why we consider it so crucial. Our courts face many challenges that can hinder access to justice, and even affect the quality of justice. Here are just some of the issues the courts face on a daily basis and some of the changes they hope to implement in the future to enhance efficiency and improve the court experience for all users:

  • The caseloads of all of the courts are far higher than you might expect. The Probate & Family Court alone saw almost 160,000 cases filed in FY2013; altogether, the Trial Court saw just under 1 million filed. Even for cases that never make it to the courtroom, the accompanying paperwork, as well as the time spent handling them, stretches thin the limited resources of the courts.
  • Likewise, the numbers of pro se litigants that come through the courts place a burden on court staff members, as they have to devote precious extra time to giving guidance and providing materials to litigants who are unfamiliar with the court system and are not always prepared to properly present their cases.
  • Relieving this burden and ensuring access to justice for those who cannot afford representation, or who have entered the system struggling with difficulties like substance addiction, is a priority of the courts – and of the BBA. The Trial Court has implemented several initiatives to provide support for these individuals, including the Brooke Courthouse Court Service Center, a workshop for self-represented litigants to access court services and individualized attention from volunteer attorneys. In addition, specialty courts provide treatment plans attuned to the particular needs of those dealing with substance abuse and/or mental health problems, as well as to struggling veterans. These are a critical part of the expansion of the courts.  The latest budget for the Trial Court includes a line-item funding specialty courts, and this appropriation is a positive first step in the right direction.  After speaking with the Chief Justices, I am convinced that there is a need to expand these programs further.
  • Implementing advanced technological upgrades will be an essential part of streamlining the courts. In the long run, these improvements promise efficiency and ease of use, and we must be willing in invest in them today.
  • Apart from the internal systemic maintenance that the courts require, the physical courthouses themselves need work as well. Several are long overdue for repairs and basic accessibility features, such as handicap entrances and routes.

Advocating for increased funding for the judiciary is certainly about improving the infrastructure for the court staff and judges; but it also affects litigants who pass through the courthouse, often without having a clear idea of how to pursue justice, and the attorneys who practice within its walls. This isn’t just a responsibility we take on by rote – it is one of the BBA’s core tenets. We recognize that our judges and court personnel do incredibly difficult work every day to see justice served, and we remain steadfastly committed to working with the courts to help them continue to do so. The people of Massachusetts demand, and deserve, nothing less.

Annual Meeting and the Power of the Bar

This past Friday, the BBA held its Annual Meeting Luncheon, the first major event of the program year and my first major event as President of the BBA. It was a truly spectacular experience to stand on that stage and look out at nearly 1,200 members of the legal community – attorneys, esteemed judges, government representatives, and many more – who had gathered in force to honor the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts and former BBA President Ed Barshak.

The opportunity to personally present these awards reminded me exactly why we were all there: to express our gratitude to those who have worked and are still working to substantively change the legal community, and Boston, for the better. We are lucky to have leaders with the vision and passion to start initiatives that produce meaningful, tangible results, from Ed Barshak’s Committee on School Desegregation to the imminent report of the Task Force, which I believe will change the debate on the value of legal services. They truly represent the power of the bar to make a difference, which struck me profoundly on Friday. That power resides not only in the incredible work of our honorees, but also in the support and mobilization of the legal community around a variety of issues that are critically important to our community.

AM_Task Force 1

BBA Past President J.D. Smeallie and his Task Force have made incredible strides over the last year in exploring the issue of civil legal aid, working across all branches of government and with pro bono independent economic experts. We are awaiting their findings, but we expect they will help us make the case that civil legal aid constitutes a benefit to society rather than a cost, as every dollar invested in such aid results in a savings of two to five dollars to the Commonwealth and its residents. As President of the BBA, J.D. Smeallie led the charge to work on this issue; the enthusiastic support and determined research of representatives from across the legal system and across Massachusetts have made the report a reality.

Likewise, Ed Barshak is a true leader who exhibits great wisdom, humility, and compassion. When the City of Boston faced a major challenge in the 1970s, he was not afraid to act, and his guidance brought the BBA more fully to the forefront of the Boston community as a reputable and respected voice of reason. As he organized a committee to study the legal case and resulting school desegregation plan in Boston, Ed knew what everyone who has held a leadership position at the BBA knows: that despite all of our members being busy professionals, volunteers will always step forward when the need arises.

Barshak

This is what makes us great, as an organization and as a community, and why it was doubly meaningful to see and meet with so many attendees at our sold-out Annual Meeting Luncheon. The event symbolizes the start of a new program year, and to have nearly 1,200 members of the legal community present to welcome each other, share ideas, offer standing ovations to our honorees, and generally show their support for the continued improvement of the profession, and our society as a whole, was inspiring.

When we talk about the power of the bar and our ability to effect substantive change in our community, we rightly think of leaders like Ed Barshak, J.D. Smeallie, and the members of his Task Force. But even the BBA itself – an organization that has prospered over the past 300 years due to the steady commitment of volunteers, who give their time simply because they believe in these causes and find fulfillment in working on them – showcases the true power of the bar: not just strength in numbers, but strength in our conviction, passion, and drive to support great work.

I would like to thank our honorees again for their work to improve our community, as well as New York Times reporter Adam Liptak for his heartfelt speech about his late friend and former colleague Tony Lewis and what “freedom of the press” truly means. I must also thank all who attended Annual Meeting – and all our members who find the time, year in and year out, to bolster the power of the bar for the benefit of all. If Friday was any indication of what is to come, we have a full and productive year ahead.

Crowd Shot

What Is Civil Legal Aid?

For more than 40 years, the Boston Bar Association has worked on the issue of civil legal aid – how to connect constituents with resources, how to preserve and expand those resources, and how to secure adequate funding.  Throughout each year, the BBA partners with community organizations to put on programs and trainings that provide critical support to civil legal aid initiatives.

As the new President of the BBA, I am personally honored to continue this long legacy of assisting the underrepresented.  My first exposure to the legal community was through the work of attorneys at the Center for Law and Education when I was pursuing my Master’s degree in education.  Over the course of my internship, I encountered countless stories of young people incarcerated for minor infractions, such as truancy, who were being denied special education services in juvenile detention facilities.  The personal stories of these kids, many of whom came from troubled families, were the victims of abuse, or were shuttled between foster homes, really moved me.  Observing the passionate advocacy of the dedicated staff attorneys, I realized how much the legal community could do to assist those who otherwise would be helpless, and I was inspired to join the profession to work on that cause.

I plan to lead the BBA toward strengthening our efforts in this area, and we hope to invest our membership in this cause as well.  But we understand that not everyone is familiar with the facts and figures associated with civil legal aid. Here are the basics:

What is civil legal aid?  When we discuss civil legal aid, we mean non-criminal legal aid in areas where crucial rights are at stake.  This covers housing, domestic violence, federal benefits, asylum, and a range of other areas.

How do people receive civil legal aid?  Generally, in order to qualify for civil legal aid in Massachusetts, an individual must earn less than $15,000 in a year, while the income of a family of four must be less than $30,000.  Without access to free legal services, such people would have incredible difficulty hiring and maintaining legal counsel, and therefore have no recourse in seeking justice other than to try to represent themselves.

Where does civil legal aid funding come from?  State funding for civil legal aid is mostly directed through a $15 million appropriation to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), though this amount is only about a quarter of the statewide total civil legal aid budget.  The rest comes from interest on lawyers’ trust accounts (IOLTA), private funding sources, and the federal government, in part through Title III of the Older Americans Act and the Legal Services Corporation.  This can lead to variability: for example, IOLTA is a major source of civil legal aid funding, but if IOLTA funds are down – and they have declined dramatically in recent years as interest rates have fallen to near zero – then funding for civil legal aid correspondingly decreases.

Finally, the most important question:

How can I get involved?  Each January, hundreds of BBA members “Walk to the Hill” to lobby their state representatives on the issue of civil legal aid.  We encourage you to join us at the next Walk to the Hill at lunchtime on January 29, 2015.  Many firms send a group as well; if your firm does not, we would encourage you to spearhead this effort internally.  More information is available through the Equal Justice Coalition at www.equaljusticecoalition.org.

You can financially support civil legal aid by making a donation to local legal services programs, or by contributing to the Boston Bar Foundation (BBF).  The BBF distributes privately raised funds and IOLTA funds to providers of civil legal aid in the Boston area.  This year, the BBF provided $825,500 in grants to 23 community organizations that work to provide legal services to those in need.  More information is available at http://bostonbarfoundation.org/donate.

We’d also like to point anybody interested in this cause to www.massprobono.org.  This site not only lists local civil legal aid organizations, but it also highlights myriad volunteer opportunities across subject areas.

Finally, we look forward to the imminent release of the Report of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, which will offer much more information about the unmet need for civil legal aid in the state and provide a path toward meeting that need.  But our work will certainly not end with the report, and we will continue to advocate for civil legal aid throughout the course of the year and beyond.

Start of a New Year at the BBA

Today is my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, and is also the day I am sitting down to write my first blog post as President of the BBA.  What an exciting time of firsts!  I am very much looking forward to the coming year.  The BBA will be focusing on a number of important issues, including court funding, civil legal aid, livable wages for prosecutors and public defenders, the injustice of mass incarceration, and the challenges facing law students and new lawyers in the changing economy.

My involvement in the BBA has always been an important part of my personal and professional identity, and has allowed me to advocate for issues affecting the administration of justice which do not come up in my “day job” at Foley Hoag.  In fact, it is one of the reasons that I love being a lawyer.  As Steve Jobs once said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.  If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”  I am glad that my search for professional fulfillment has led me to the BBA.

The mission of the BBA is to advance the highest standards of excellence for the legal profession, facilitate access to justice, and serve the community at large.  If you share my passion for these issues, I hope that you will be active in the BBA in the coming year and join us in this important work.