People Have the Power

By Bob Glaves  |  CBF Executive Director

Monday was the CBA and CBF’s 18th Annual Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon, where about 700 attendees helped us honor seven unsung heroes of our profession who make us all proud to be part of Chicago’s legal community. This was the third year that we started the Luncheon with a song to help set a theme for the day, and this year’s song was Patti Smith’s classic, People Have the Power. The song is a particularly fitting tribute to the exemplary pro bono and public service work we celebrate at the Luncheon and highlights two important themes in the ongoing quest to ensure the justice system is truly fair and accessible for everyone.

The first theme is the power we have as individuals to make a difference in the world. For all of us connected to the legal profession, we have a special power based on the skills, training and experience that only we possess. And that special power gives us unique opportunities to change the world for the better.

Some of us have more power than others, and those of us who are in leadership positions in the profession and the justice system have a heightened responsibility to use our positions to prioritize access to justice as a core goal. We don’t need to be in high profile positions like those to make our mark though. We saw seven more great examples at the Luncheon who underscored that wherever we are in the legal community, we have the power to do some amazing things by virtue of our unique roles in the justice system.

The second important theme this song underscores is the power of community.  In addition to all of the great things we can do as individuals, we all are part of something bigger in this profession and can make an exponentially bigger impact in making the justice system fair and accessible for all when we come together as a legal community.

As Patti Smith so eloquently put it,

I believe everything we dream 
can come to pass through our union 

We can turn the world around
We can turn the earth’s revolution 

I happen to believe that too, because I have a front row seat where I see it every day. The CBF is the embodiment of the enormous impact that our legal community can have when we come together around this common cause.

We may not have turned the world around yet, but together we have certainly turned the earth’s revolution when it comes to access to justice. That is a tribute to Chicago’s legal community and the tremendous power we have when we join forces, and the really exciting part is that we still are just scratching the surface of what is possible and needed.

Our justice system is the envy of the world when it works as designed, the great equalizer that ensures everyone gets a fair shake regardless of who they are. It is a system that rights wrongs, hold our leaders accountable, and is the very lifeblood of our American ideals of fairness, justice, and equality.

Unfortunately, we know the system doesn’t always live up to its ideals.  Too many people are effectively denied access because they can’t afford a lawyer, and many of the rules and procedures we are trying to enforce either weren’t all that fair to begin with or haven’t kept up with the times.

We can do a lot better, and the rest of the people in our communities are depending on those of us in the legal community to do that. All of us have a critical role to play by using our individual power as lawyers and legal professionals, and our collective power as a legal community, to make sure that the justice system is truly fair and accessible for everyone.

While it is true that equal access to justice is a fundamental principle of our country and not just the responsibility of lawyers, it is also true that we will never fulfill the ideals of our justice system unless and until we as a legal community fully embrace our leadership responsibility in this cause. Monday’s Luncheon reaffirmed my optimism that we can do that, and reminded me how proud I am to be part of a legal community in Chicago that has so many lawyers and other dedicated professionals who are proving it every day.