Moving forward past indifference to provide equal justice to all

The Chicago Bar Foundation’s Investing in Justice Campaign focuses on the financial needs of pro bono work

By Dan Reidy and Natalie Spears

read the article at InsideCounsel

When we talk about The Chicago Bar Foundation’s (CBF) 7th annual Investing in Justice Campaign, we talk about making a difference. In a sense, though, it’s just as much about standing up to indifference. As lawyers, doing nothing about the lack of equal access to justice in our legal system for so many people in need is just not an option. We cannot stand silent or still on this issue. We must move forward.

Most people believe that if they saw an injustice with their own eyes a homeless child, a woman in the midst of a domestic violence situation, an injured victim of a crime they would do something to help and not just look the other way. Yet as a legal community, if we do nothing to improve access to justice when so many people in our community can’t afford necessary legal help in situations like these, that is looking the other way.

As lawyers, we have a special privilege effectively, the keys to the legal system. Our training, experience and knowledge open doors that lock out so many of the most vulnerable people in our community. We can navigate a system that is complex, confusing and intimidating for those without that knowledge. The legal system isn’t designed for them, it’s designed for lawyers. And with that privilege comes a special responsibility to help ensure those who can’t afford our services have access to the justice system.

We know better than anyone else the importance of having a skilled advocate or adviser in your corner and the different outcomes for those that can afford to pay for legal assistance and those who cannot. About half of the more than 1.4 million low-income people in Cook County, IL will have a legal problem in the next year, a statistic that is fairly typical throughout the country. This can be a turning point in their lives, and what happens next will depend on whether they have access to competent legal assistance. The right help at the right moment can mean the difference between shelter and homelessness; medical assistance and unnecessary physical suffering; economic stability and bankruptcy; productive work and unemployment. However, the reality of an overburdened system is that many low-income people will be turned away and left to struggle on their own.

We can make an important impact by doing pro bono work, but those efforts will be diminished if we don’t also step up our financial support for our community’s legal aid organizations. Some may claim that pro bono is the answer to chronic underfunding for legal aid and other systemic barriers to access to justice. However, even for the many legal areas where pro bono is an effective and critical part of the solution, it still requires funding to work. Pro bono lawyers need good legal aid organizations as partners to provide the necessary infrastructure to support their work (i.e., pro bono programs with solid screening, referral, training and support functions for volunteers). As important as pro bono work is in the larger efforts, we also need to be as generous as possible in our financial support for this work. Ensuring access to good legal representation and strengthening the legal aid organizations, which day-in and day-out work to help those in need, is part of our responsibility as a legal profession. The system, after all, starts with us. It’s up to us to do our part to improve it.

And that’s what the campaign is all about making it possible for more people in need to have access to critical legal services. Since its inception seven years ago, the campaign has raised more than $6.75 million, every dollar of which has gone directly to the many outstanding pro bono and legal aid organizations serving our community. That has made it possible for tens of thousands of people in need to get legal assistance which otherwise would not have been available to them. This year, more than 135 law firms, corporate legal departments and other organizations are participating in the campaign, and 100 percent of the funds again will go directly to work in our community through CBF grants.

We want to sincerely thank every one of the many thousands of lawyers and legal professionals who are contributing to this year’s Investing in Justice Campaign. You demonstrate what an incredible impact we can have when we come together as a legal community around this cause. The past six years of the campaign have proven this. Each dollar invested and each person helped moves us forward to a stronger, fairer and more just community for everyone.

While the campaign is just beginning to wrap up, there’s still plenty of time to contribute. You can find out more about it here. And for those in other jurisdictions, consider a contribution to your local legal aid efforts.