Laura Klein Abel
Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth
by Laura K. Abel & David Pedulla
Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
In a world with too much poverty and vast inequality, you would think that no one would have the time or the inclination to attack the motives of attorneys who donate their own time to help people who cannot afford lawyers. But recently the Wall Street Journal did just that, criticizing attorneys for seeking pro bono cases to bolster their reputations.
Personally, we don’t care why some attorneys do good – the point is that they do. After all, eight out of ten legal needs of low-income people annually go unmet in cases involving such fundamentally important issues as child custody and eviction from one’s home (See here for information). So, if a newspaper wants to focus on pro bono, it could usefully write about the real problem instead of sniping at the motives of those who are doing something about it.
In the same article, the WSJ quotes a few lawyers complaining that their firms must donate money to public interest organizations in order to cherry pick pro bono cases. We don’t know the particulars here, but again, it’s a good thing for law firms to help support public interest groups. The work of these organizations is attractive to the law firms in large part because of its genuine importance. And, like pro bono representation itself, the end result of donations is to enable more people seeking custody of their children, or fighting eviction from their homes, to have a lawyer by their side who can ensure they get a fair hearing.
It’s not as if law firms are forced to donate. With 80% of the legal needs of low-income people going unmet, any lawyer wanting to do pro bono work can always go to the nearest state trial court and offer his or her services to the many litigants representing themselves there.
So let’s start celebrating the nearly two-thirds of lawyers in private practice who do pro bono, and figure out how to encourage the rest to join in. At the same time, there’s a need to increase political support and public funding for civil legal aid programs. Because, as we’ve argued before, even with a huge increase in pro bono representation, the immense need for representation for low-income people would remain. Criticizing the motives of the firms and the public interest organizations that are doing good work is a dangerous distraction from this work, which is urgently needed to close the infamous justice gap.