Pro Bono and the Power of Proximity

By Bob Glaves  |  CBF Executive Director

Last year at this time I kicked off the Bobservations series with what then seemed like a great idea to me: seven pro bono related posts in one week, one post for each day of Pro Bono Week 2015. I ultimately succeeded in that quest, but may have been the only person who actually read all of them. So I am not going to try that again this year. Instead, I want to focus on one of the key pro bono themes I referenced in last year’s series the power of proximity as it sets a great tone for this year’s CBA/CBF Pro Bono Week and its theme of Caring, One Person at a Time.

Proximity in this context is drawn from the great Bryan Stevenson and refers to the importance of getting closer to the problems that low-income and disadvantaged people experience in the justice system. While there of course are many other reasons that pro bono plays a critical role in our profession and in our communities, proximity is the most underrated and arguably the most powerful benefit of pro bono for all concerned.

Many of us find ourselves in day to day practices far removed from where regular people are experiencing the justice system. And how can we realistically fulfill our responsibilities as trustees of that system if we don’t ever experience it from this vantage point? So long as you have the ability to get up to speed relatively quickly in the practice area involved which with some training and support is generally true for just about all but the most specialized areas of law you can make a big difference for your client and learn a lot in the process.

I saw this firsthand in my own experience as a newer lawyer with a practice focused on commercial and tort litigation for business clients. That kind of practice, typical of most litigators in larger firms, was very fulfilling but did not give me much flavor for how the system works for regular people, let alone low-income and disadvantaged people in our community. When we ran across unrepresented people in the courts in our practice, the default assumption was that person did not have much of a case, not that there might be an access to justice issue.

Put another way, when it came to access to justice and the challenges that low-income and disadvantaged people face in the justice system, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. When I joined the CBA Legal Aid Committee back in 1991, it gradually exposed me to some of those larger systemic challenges (i.e., overstretched legal aid, lack of funding). I didn’t fully get it though until I started doing pro bono by volunteering at a clinic for CVLS in Rogers Park.

At the clinic, clients would come in wrestling with bread and butter issues like consumer, housing, or family disputes, all very different from my day to day practice. I had plenty of training and support available from the lawyers at CVLS to make sure I wasn’t getting in over my head, which made it easy to jump in and help. And I ended up learning as much through those clinic experiences and my follow-up pro bono representation of many of the clients I met there than I did through any of my other early experiences as a lawyer, and probably more.

These early pro bono experiences gave me a whole new perspective on the justice system and the unique challenges that low-income and disadvantaged people face when they confront legal problems that can often have a dramatic impact on their safety and well-being. I also learned what a huge difference I could make for clients in need through pro bono service even when it’s outside of my normal comfort zone of work. It led me to get more involved in many other ways, and I was a much better lawyer, a much better person, and a much better advocate for the cause as a result.

So I am a big believer in the power of proximity for lawyers in private practice doing pro bono work, and it applies just as much to other stakeholders in the system, including law firms, legal aid organizations, and the courts. As we approach this year’s Pro Bono Week and look past that to the coming year, let’s all remember the power of proximity and the integral role of pro bono in making us well-rounded lawyers who can most effectively carry out our roles as trustees of the justice system.